Executive produced by Eugene Jarecki (“The House I Live In,” “Why We Fight”), and winner of the 2015 Sundance Special Jury Prize for Break Out First Feature, co-directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR is an eye-opening look at one place where our war on terror, taxpayer dollars are going – namely to guys like the doc’s main subject Saeed “Shariff” Torres, a sixtysomething FBI informant and onetime Black Panther. Though the flick has the distinction of being “the first documentary to place filmmakers on the ground during an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation,” what’s most notable about (T)ERROR is not the dubious tactics Shariff uses to befriend an (American) Taliban-loving target. No, it’s the way the Bureau itself has created a sinister system, one in which down on their luck dudes like Shariff are lured then entrapped in a disturbing economic cycle, building case after case just to get to the next payday.
I caught up with co-director David Felix Sutcliffe prior to the doc’s April 16th Tribeca Film Festival premiere.
Lauren Wissot: Since you’ve obviously grown close to your main character (I read that Lyric has known Shariff for a dozen years or so), what are the challenges in maintaining objectivity during production? Is it even possible?
David Felix Sutcliffe: Because my co-director Lyric R. Cabral has known Saeed for over 12 years, there is a strong element of trust, between filmmakers and subject, that facilitated much of the access demonstrated in (T)ERROR. Initially, Saeed disclosed to Lyric in 2005 that he worked as an FBI counterterrorism informant.
Lyric R. Cabral: Based on Saeed’s disclosure, and desire to tell his story for the public record, we were able to secure his full participation while participating in an active counterterrorism sting operation in Pittsburgh. As journalists and filmmakers we do not believe in the concept of objectivity, as our life experiences and perspectives dictate aesthetic and content decisions, throughout the filmmaking process, that are inherent in our storytelling choices.
However, so as not to misguide Saeed as to the nature of the journalism and betray his trust, we were clear to inform him that although (T)ERROR is principally his story, we would make every effort to include additional perspectives and characters in the film. It was important to us to trace the impacts of Saeed’s work, and to include the voices of members of the Muslim community, and their families, who had been directly affected by his actions. By telling Saeed that the film would be a holistic piece of journalism, we were able to preempt the ethical and moral quandaries that may arise when a subject is not privy to the nature of the filmmaking.
LW: You also seem to have a rather tense relationship with Shariff. On the one hand, you’ve gained the trust of someone whose job description pretty much requires him to not trust anyone. On the other hand, there’s often an underlying hostility on the part of Shariff towards your probing camera. So were there times when you wondered whether he’d withdraw his cooperation, even whether you’d be able to complete the film? And if so, how did you get things back on track?
LRC: Because Saeed worked for 23 years as an FBI informant, there are aspects of his genuine personality and character that have been compromised by his years spent in service of the FBI. Saeed typically speaks in curt, short sentences, as this pattern of speech best facilitates discussions about classified information and operational details. Despite his desire to fully articulate his story on film, Saeed initially had difficulty expressing himself because of the linguistic constraints imposed by working as an FBI informant. As filmmakers we were often forced to ask Saeed questions multiple times, in multiple variations, in an effort to get him to fully articulate his experiences. Often this journalistic probing translates on screen as being met with resistance, though as filmmakers we never felt as though Saeed was not fully participating in the filmmaking. We never felt as though he would abandon the project, as he was committed to telling his story in an effort to better educate the public about our counterterrorism sting operations.
LW: There’s a point in the film when you follow the character who Shariff himself is targeting for the FBI – without Shariff’s knowledge. Did this at all feel like a betrayal on your part to Shariff? Why did you ultimately decide to go in this direction?
DFS: The question of betrayal is an important one, and we’re surprised that it hasn’t come up more. There is no question that expanding the film to include the perspective of Khalifah, the target of the investigation, was an enormous leap, and one that Shariff most certainly never expected. We’re pushing the ethical envelope with this film, and have had some long conversations throughout the process, grappling with whether or not we were making the right decision at certain points. However, we were always very clear in our intentions with Shariff, and communicated to him that the film would expand beyond his perspective, and include other voices, in order for us to fact-check his assertions, and to gain additional insight into the FBI’s counterterrorism tactics. Given that we felt that we had been fair with him, and weren’t misleading him into thinking that this film was going to be a celebratory portrait of his heroic actions in the war on terror.
We also felt, as journalists, that our primarily responsibility is to the public. However, we also want to make sure that our film does not unnecessarily endanger our subjects, or put them in legally precarious positions. And although Shariff is the first informant to give journalists access during an active counterterrorism sting operation, there have been a number of other FBI informants who have come forward to discuss their work with the Bureau after the conclusion of investigations in which they participated. And yet none of these individuals have faced legal repercussions for speaking out. That precedent indicated to us that the FBI was unwilling to press legal charges against informants, most likely because they fear that a public trial would release incredibly damning information, information that they very much want to keep secret. Although there is no way to definitively say what potential consequences Shariff may face, this trend reassured us that he was unlikely to be punished for participating in this film. And as of this interview Shariff has not been approached or reprimanded by the FBI.
Providing audiences with the opportunity to hear from both sides of an FBI counterterrorism sting – the informant and the target – is extremely important, and outweighed all other considerations for us. These cases are shrouded in secrecy. And although the FBI would like us to believe they maintain this wall of secrecy in order to protect national security, we feel that they do so rather as a way of avoiding public scrutiny. The film very clearly demonstrates why scrutiny of the FBI’s tactics, and their use of informants, is so critical. These informants are untrained and unregulated, many of them criminals looking to reduce prison sentences of their own. And for informants like Shariff, who are more or less freelancers, the financial bonuses they’re offered can add an additional layer of ethical knottiness. According to Shariff, he was making $50,000 a month at the height of his career! How can we trust these types of individuals to make fair and honest assessments of a target’s potential threat level given these stakes? The thought that a former convict would voluntarily walk away from an investigation – and an enormous paycheck – should a target appear less dangerous upon closer investigation is absurd. These cases are the cornerstone of our government’s domestic war on terror, and the public absolutely needs to know how these cases are being conducted.
As for why we decided to follow Khalifah, the target of Shariff’s investigation, it’s hard for us to imagine making any other choice given the circumstances. To give you a bit of context, we had spent several months hearing about Khalifah from Shariff. And, quite frankly, we were dying to talk to him. However, we had been strongly warned by the ACLU against using information obtained from Shariff to contact Khalifah, for fear of tampering with the investigation. However, at a certain point Khalifah voiced his suspicions online that he was being set-up by the FBI, stating loudly and clearly that he wanted to speak to journalists. Only at that time did we contact him to request an interview.
We should also add that our legal advisors cautioned us against informing either Shariff or Khalifah that we were filming the other party – again, in order to avoid tampering with the investigation. As filmmakers it was an extremely challenging position to be in, withholding that kind of information from our sources. However, given the potentially severe legal repercussions we were facing, there was no question that this was a necessary decision on our part.
LW: How did Eugene Jarecki and his Charlotte Street Films become involved in the production? How have they contributed to the doc?
DFS: Charlotte Street Films has been a critical partner from very early on in the project. Christopher St. John, our producer, has been working with Eugene at Charlotte Street for several years now. (Chris went to college with David, and although they hadn’t seen each other since graduating they met up in the early stages of production.) We didn’t have a sample or a treatment, but Chris was instantly fascinated by the story as well as our access, and offered to connect us with Eugene. Eugene was equally enthusiastic and supportive of the project, and ultimately agreed to come on as an executive producer, and to effectively loan us his staff members. (Shirel Kozak, our co-producer, is also a Charlotte Street Films staffer.) In addition to giving us excellent creative advice, Eugene also connected us with funders as well as festival programmers. As for Chris, he’s been an incredible and very hands-on producer. We also shared an office with Charlotte Street during the edit, which enabled Chris to watch cuts throughout on a regular basis, making it easier for us all to communicate about various production logistics.
LW: Have you been in touch with the FBI, either you reaching out to the organization or through their contacting you? Have there been any repercussions for you or for your characters as a result of the film?
DFS: We submitted a request to the FBI for comment. Unsurprisingly, they did not reply. We found out later that agents were present at some of our Sundance screenings in Utah, but they did not identify themselves. As for repercussions, Khalifah has been experiencing harassment in jail. It is the constitutional right of every inmate to be incarcerated without inmates or corrections officers knowing the crime or crimes for which the inmate is serving time. Though Khalifah has not been charged with a crime of terrorism, many of the corrections officers in FCI Fairton in New Jersey, where he is currently detained, have referred to him as a “terrorist.” While refuting these accusations, and formally documenting these incidents through prison administration, Khalifah has experienced solitary confinement as a result of his voicing the maltreatment. To date there have been no repercussions for Saeed. He is still in loose communication with the FBI, although to our understanding, they are not providing him with active intelligence.