(T)ERROR is a bizarre story of FBI informants and terror suspects. Saeed is an unrepentant FBI informant. He’s also a charismatic single father and generally anchorless. His handler charges him with following a Person of Interest (POI) named Khalifa in Pittsburgh.
Directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe have several issues to overcome in their film. For one, they can’t shoot Saeed’s interactions with the FBI. They also can’t shoot Saeed’s meetings with his main POI, Khalifa. It’s difficult to craft a narrative when the two elements that make up the crux of your story must take place off-camera.
The result is a film with the plot of a spy thriller and the presentation of Slacker. Much time is spent with Saeed smoking pot, drinking cheap beer, and lamenting his financial situation. It’s a good workaround – the off-kilter combination gives (T)ERROR a familiar, personal tone that belies its name but fits the theme: that the domestic war on terror is often fought out in mundane, sometimes ludicrously normal ways.
Like another buzzy documentary this year – Welcome to Leith – (T)ERROR has a lot to do with first amendment rights and extreme biases. Unlike that documentary, Cabral and Sutcliffe’s film doesn’t really deal with a public outlier like white supremacists. The filmmakers represent the real and pervasive groundswell of Islamophobia by humanizing Khalifa, who goes quickly from villain to hero, exposing easy prejudices. Early shots of violent video games in Khalifa’s apartment might at first be evidence of violent tendencies, but quickly change to something much simpler: an American love of pop culture.
(T)ERROR isn’t much to speak of visually, but it doesn’t have to be. The film falls out of focus often, and there’s a motif of buildings at night with bare, yellow light bulbs. If anything, it’s frenetic, immediate, and lonely.
At times (T)ERROR could be a spoof. The FBI’s messages to Saeed – spelled out on-screen – feature hilarious short hand (one message begins “Dude…”), there’s a sad but funny back and forth about Saeed’s payment (he claims he got $900, the FBI claims they gave him $1,500), and Khalifa easily outs his pursuers through some quick Google searches.
But what makes (T)ERROR close to comedy is exactly what makes it disturbing. That real lives are being toyed with and real, dire consequences being doled out seems the thing of something far more serious than the anonymous government figures in the background take it.