If the consequences weren’t so dire, the ham-fisted FBI “counterterrorism” operation chronicled in the documentary “(T)ERROR” would be comical. You could see the Coen Brothers taking a whack at this sort of material — an FBI informant and would-be cupcake chef with delusions of grandeur (he’s a big fan of “Homeland”) ensnares completely innocent Muslims in terrorism investigations. And lets a documentary crew follow him around for the whole thing.
But it’s not funny, because it’s real, and real people are sitting in prison. Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral (a former neighbor and target of informant nicknamed “Shariff”) and David Felix Sutcliffe got incredible access to a counterterrorism sting in process, access that will probably make some federal officials very nervous. The film premiered Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival at the Yarrow in Park City.
“Shariff” is an ex-Black Panther turned FBI informant, one of thousands of informants the government supposedly has in the Muslim community. The FBI orders him to move to Pittsburgh and befriend a white Muslim convert named Khalifa, who has been posting potentially inflammatory (but, let’s stress, completely legal) speech on his Facebook page.
Shariff tries to get close to Khalifa, and we follow the text-message stream as he rather obviously tries to befriend Khalifa and gauge his interest in terrorism (“Homeland” comes up). Khalifa largely rebuffs him, and the filmmakers start interviewing him (unbeknownst to Shariff). It turns out Khalifa, who seems like a decent, ordinary guy who likes his PlayStation and his Koran, pegged Shariff as an FBI informant from the get-go.
But with the FBI pressuring Shariff to find something, anything on Khalifa, and Khalifa threatening to speak out publicly against the informant sting program, things go tragically wrong. We also learn of a similar case in which Shariff informed on a famous jazz bassist, Tarik Shah, who seems equally blameless. Shariff seems alternately conflicted about the role he plays in sending these people to prison, and deluded with dreams that he’s a master spy (at one point, the pot-smoking elderly cupcake chef says he will “terminate with extreme prejudice” someone.)
There’s not quite enough material here for a feature film, and “(T)ERROR” drags at time in the endless back and forth of text messages and interviews. But it could be a tight half-hour or hour-long documentary on a show like “Frontline,” and since it was produced by the filmmaking arm of PBS, that’s maybe where it will end up.