Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/26/15 00:45:33

"Undercover overseen."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: I suspect that many watching "(T)error", even with plentiful assurances to the contrary, will be expecting that, by the end, a curtain will be pulled back to reveal the film as fictitious, heavy on re-enactments, or some other kind of put-on; it seems like the only way that the scenario makes sense. If it is, then the filmmakers are playing things very close to the vest, and the fact that it can exist at all can be as damming as anything it actually shows.

After all, who would believe that someone like Saeed Torres, who was active in the Black Panthers back in the 1960s and now does contact work getting close to suspected terrorists for the FBI - he prefers "citizen operative" to "informant" - would (a) reveal himself to a documentary filmmaker and (b) allow her to tag along on his next assignment? That's the set up for this movie as filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe follow him to Pittsburgh, where he (going by "Shariff") makes contact with Khalifah, a convert to Islam who had been talking big about jihad on social media.

A common complaint about documentaries is that the filmmakers don't always show both sides of the story, and while this one certainly doesn't give the full 360-degree view one might perhaps hope for, it is kind of surprising when Cabral & Sutcliffe jump from making a single-point-of-view picture to one with dual perspectives, with neither subject aware that the directors are also following the other. It's a move that feels daring as they do it, and even though the two perspectives don't remain in direct opposition for very long, it's still unusual in that the shift does not feel like a token acknowledgment of the bigger picture or a complete change in focus that makes the film feel disjointed.

Even after that, the film still belongs in large part to Saeed. He'd be colorful even if he weren't a former Black Panther spy, an energetic ex-con who wants nothing more to start a pastry shop and who gets excited at his son's basketball games, but his background gives the filmmakers a chance to cut over to various colorful moments during in the clash between races in New York City. And though he approached Cabral, he's also fun to watch because he frequently seems to have as little patience with the filmmakers as he does his FBI handlers - he's testy, quick to make corrections but not particularly fond of explaining things, and clearly has a love-hate relationship with the work he does, especially since he seems to have few other options.

The FBI's mandates that he bristles at are what eventually gives the movie a little more weight than just a look at the sort of undercover work that one seldom sees. There's a fair amount of discussion about the difference between pre-empting crime/terrorism and entrapment, especially given how both Saeed and the FBI seem to have reached a point where they look at this as a job where you need to show results, to one extent or another. That's a worrisome attitude for law enforcement to have, especially when it seems as faceless and impossible to negotiate with as the cell phone calls and clandestine meetings portrayed here make it seem.

This isn't necessarily new information, but it's fascinating to see it happen first-hand as opposed to seeing the process reconstructed afterward. I wouldn't be surprised if the fallout from this film was more careful security on operations rather than less zeal in prosecuting not just every offender, but every potential offender, which means we may not see its like again any time soon.

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