Winner of a 2015 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize, (T)ERROR is the first documentary to place filmmakers on the ground during an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Unfolding with the drama and intrigue of a spy novel, (T)ERROR follows Saeed "Shariff" Torres, a 63-year-old Black revolutionary turned informant, as he takes on what he swears is his last job for the FBI, and invites filmmakers to document his covert efforts to befriend a suspected jihadist - without informing his superiors. As surprising revelations emerge, not only about Torres’ past, but also about the increasingly murky ethical grounds of his present mission, (T)ERROR explores just how far we are going to prevent terror and exactly what liberties we are sacrificing to get there
(T)ERROR debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and has since played at more than 40 festivals around the world. The film has been featured on This American Life, Democracy Now, and in The New York Times. On Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, more than 2 million viewers tuned in to watch (T)ERROR for its US television premiere.
The film will soon be available on Netflix and other digital platforms.
From 2002-2005, while studying journalism at Columbia University, co-director Lyric R. Cabral lived in a three-story brownstone in Harlem. Saeed, the main character of the film, was her downstairs neighbor. Intrigued by this older, dapperly attired African-American gentleman, one who would often blast Gil Scott Heron and Fela Kuti tunes, with marijuana smoke wafting out from under his door, she initiated a relationship with him. And for several years they would spend time together on a daily basis, talking about current affairs, politics, as well as his involvement in the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Then, one day in 2005, she came back to the brownstone to find that Saeed had suddenly disappeared. While looking into his empty apartment, she got a frantic call from him. Speaking in a low, anxious tone he told me - "I have something major to tell you, but I need you to come visit me.” Soon after this call, she went to visit him at his new location, where Saeed disclosed to her that he had been living a double-life - that he was an FBI informant. The apartment in which they had conversed was wired with audio and video surveillance, specifically to record persons of interest whom the FBI suspected of terrorism, and the Bureau had paid all of Saeed’s rent and expenses.
After Saeed’s confession, she was repulsed by the personal implications of his actions, but also extremely attracted to the tremendous potential of his story. Although he initially wanted her to write a book about his experiences, she declined, wanting to finish school, and learn more about these issues, and the world that Saeed occupied, before endeavoring to tell his story. In the meantime, she made sure she kept in contact with him, and from 2005-2011, she would call him once a month, asking simply “How are you and where are you?”
Shortly after Saeed's confession, Lyric met co-director David Felix Sutcliffe, who was then working on ADAMA, a documentary about a student at the afterschool arts program where they both taught. The film explored the story of Adama Bah, a 16-year-old Muslim girl from Harlem, who had been arrested by the FBI on suspicion of being a “potential” suicide bomber.
While working on ADAMA, David noticed the vast majority of the terrorist plots “discovered” by the government seemed, in fact, to be created by FBI informants, working at the direction of their superiors at the Bureau. Though he was interested in learning more about these cases, and the relationships that developed between FBI informants and the men they were attempting to set up, David never seriously pursued the idea, due to the obvious challenge of locating someone who is, by definition, anonymous. In 2011, David offhandedly mentioned to Lyric his desire to make a film about an informant. She subsequently informed him of her relationship with Saeed, at which point they discussed reaching out to him and explore whether he'd be willing to in participate in a film. When she contacted Saeed to explore the idea, he said that he was interested, and that we should come to his house to discuss the idea further.