Last week, the intimate theater within Hallwalls Gallery featured (T)ERROR, a mesmerizing documentary directed by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe. The film, winner of the 2015 Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize, pulsates with danger. It is the first to follow an active FBI counterterrorism sting, and calls to mind questions of ethics, justice, and privacy.
How does the government investigate domestic terror suspects? Is justice served by these measures, or is this classified as entrapment?
Saeed “Shariff” Torres, a Muslim and former Black Panther, works as an FBI informant. At the start of the film, he shacks up in Pittsburgh. His mission is to befriend Khalifah Al-Akili, the POI (person of interest). The FBI is unaware “Shariff” is the subject of a documentary. Viewers are privy to texts between “Shariff” and the FBI, leading him around in a covert game of cat-and-mouse.
The POI is Khalifah Al-Akili, a Caucasian male who has zealously adopted the Muslim religion. Khalifah boasted on Facebook about the FBI watching him, with pictures of guns and Jihadist literature (Jihad is an Islamic word that translates to struggle). As the camera follows “Shariff” around, Khalifah gets interviewed for (T)ERROR in an sudden twist. Whether he’s actually plotting an attack on the United States is questionable, at best. “Shariff” fails to collect much dirt.
As “Shariff” smokes marijuana blunts and sips Heineken, he speaks of loneliness and financial hardships. Clearly, (T)ERROR appeals to viewer’s emotions. Cabral and Sutcliffe also show sympathy for Khalifah, especially when we the FBI raided his apartment. Khalifah is locked up on a gun charge, since the investigation yields evidence of nothing else. He’s sentenced to 8 years, due to a prior felony. His wife and baby are deported to the UK.
“(T)ERROR was filmed at great risk,” says Vicki Ross, Executive Director of the WNY Peace Center, who organized the screening with Push Buffalo. “We have to have a government that upholds the law. Entrapment is certainly not legal; there has been selective upholding of free speech. We aim to increase awareness by exposing entrapments as they occur, and of the many ways were are surveilled all the time by corporations who are often working hand in hand with the government.”
With rapidly-progressing technology comes new ethical questions regarding privacy, and the means taken to uncover information. On the other side of it as well, Cabral and Sutcliffe disregard the privacy of the individuals involved, throwing themselves in the middle of an active investigation without consulting the FBI.