(T)ERROR displays a staggering propensity for carefully examining its unauthorized scenario without succumbing to either too insular or too general a set of assertions. Directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe provide access to Saeed, an F.B.I. employee whose counter-terrorism tactics include recruiting ex-cons like Saeed and paying them minimum-wage level sums in return for their efforts to infiltrate suspected, stateside al-Qaeda. For Saeed, that means holing up in a Pittsburgh home, stalking Facebook for suspicious activity from his assigned “person of interest,” and smoking joints to ease the tension. Cabral and Sutcliffe compellingly integrate themselves as off-screen presences, asking on-the-nose questions regarding Shariff’s allegiances, which prompts reflections on nearly 50 years of American radical movements, including the Black Panthers of the 1960s and Muslim allegiance groups in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, Cabral and Sutcliffe wisely keep most of the focus within Saeed’s home, as he expounds on his desires to become a bakery chef and laments how his criminal activities of the past have now forced him away from his children. The film lingers over close-ups of baked cakes and hot dogs with an understated urgency that not only recalls Saeed’s quotidian, civilian status, but also provides a substantial visual marker of the absurd overlap between domestic comforts and fears. Saeed is capable of maintaining an acceptable form of long-term desire related to the American dream, but for now, he’s engaged in a stone-faced act of federal-sanctioned deception, with little formal training or instruction, and, as one scene suggests, not even receiving all of the income he’s promised for his services.
Saeed’s target, named Khalifah, is a Muslim man living in the nearby apartments, who’s initially positioned by Saeed as a “thug terrorist,” which the film supports through mugshots and surveillance footage. Yet, most shockingly, Cabral and Sutcliffe start interviewing Khalifah nearly halfway through the film, without informing Saeed of their decision to do so. Through the juxtaposition, (T)ERROR becomes as much about the willingness of the American subject to be probed and documented for the purposes of attaining fame or, more likely in the case of these men, achieving some semblance of being understood. Cabral and Sutcliffe complicate these terms even further by asserting Saeed’s sociopathic tendencies, since his job entails becoming close with a subject and then double-crossing him.
In having the film make such a diagnosis about Saeed, the film implicitly offers an identical diagnosis about its filmmakers, who are effectively performing the same gesture. Khalifah becomes an empathetic figure after an arrest based on a photo of himself at a gun range, but (T)ERROR isn’t merely a call for social justice, even though that’s certainly on the film’s mind. Rather, it takes that point as almost an afterthought to interweaving a thriller-style show of cat and mouse, where the filmmakers figure as prominently into the conversation as their subjects. Reflexive gestures of this kind both make known the film’s present-tense construction and probe the filmmakers’ culpability in assisting the formation of deception within a social media-based milieu.