Film Review: (T)error breaks your heart

A long term FBI informant being roped into one last mission. Move to a new city, befriend a suspected domestic terrorist, gain his trust without putting yourself in danger or scaring him away. Then, ensnare him when he reveals his dangerous plot.

A potentially hacky set-up for a political thriller, except for two vital pieces of information.

(T)error is a true documentary, and the FBI has no idea that their undercover informant has a documentary crew filming his entire top secret mission from beginning to end.

Now that’s a premise.

But to leave a mark, Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, the filmmakers behind (T)error require more than just a premise. They need a story.

Luck and objective truth aren’t what make a great documentary. It’s the filmmakers understanding of the craft of storytelling and clever editing that makes (T)error exceptional. Nothing is as you expect. I mean even the synopsis of the film has two twists built into it.

The main subject of the film, Saeed Torres, is introduced, proudly dancing on the sidelines of his kid’s basketball game when they score a basket. This is Saeed, the stubborn and cheeky middle aged baker. Harmless and likeable.

Like the John Le Carre books he constantly carries with him, Saeed seems to consider himself an actual spy, a quiet observer, ever vigilant.

As he drives long haul to the FBI safehouse in a new city, his road-trip is scored by a public radio interview discussing the explosion of paid FBI informants in Post 9/11 America. Generally placed in small Muslim communities.

“These informants are generally sociopaths”, explains the guest speaker.

To build relationships just to entrap people is surely the sign of a cold blooded bastard.
Is Saeed so harmless? Spies are romantic; Snitches are scum.

I found it hard to deny liking this cool old timer. He seems full of life, smoking spliffs, baking cakes, spinning Fela Kuti records, discussing his time as an old school member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defence. How can his beliefs be so compromised? Is he doing the right thing?

Is Saeed just a selfish snitch?

The strength of (T)error is in its use of expectation, and the inevitable subversion of those expectations. What starts as a very funny farcical situation soon twists and turns into something very different.

The way the editor drops in small twists and turns into this film borders on gleefully excessive. Every scene exploits our fickle understanding, bringing in new pieces of information, constantly changing our understanding of the subjects.

The filmmakers have a very clear agenda in mind with this film, but they don’t want to lecture. It’s far more effective to lead us on our own journeys. They just present the images to exploit our own prejudices and casual judgements as we go, laying traps just to pull the rug out from under us, until every audience member ends up in the same place at the film’s conclusion.

Dismayed, depressed, hollow.

Yes, big picture, (T)error shows the failings of the US Government through presenting a procedural step-by-step view into its system, just as the The Wire (2002-2008) did. But like The Wire, it’s the singular small human stories throughout this that bring its point home, breaking your heart in the process.

The film is about something simpler and more meaningful. It’s about how we as people try to live with mistakes made, and how your refusal to take ownership of your mistakes will destroy you.

(T)error played at the “Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now” festival. Find out more about the festival here:

Riley James


Review by Riley James.