Still Under Investigation

Lyric R. Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe’s fearless exposé of an active FBI sting

Between years of hindsight in the wake of the Patriot Act and the media frenzy that followed Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, we’re collectively and more frequently questioning the boundaries between homeland security and a surveillance state that violates our civil liberties. We even know the FBI recruited thousands of informants to monitor our own Muslim communities in the post-9/11 landscape. But who gets to be the watchmen? And who’s watching them?

In the potent and illuminating documentary (T)ERROR—winner of a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe offer viewers direct, unprecedented access to an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Shot over the course of two years, the film follows 63-year-old confidential informant Saeed Torres to Pittsburgh as he targets a white Muslim convert and jihadist sympathizer named Khalifah Al-Akili. A charismatic ex-con, Vietnam vet, and former Black Panther who claims to have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in his two decades working for the FBI, Torres is a tricky and sometimes contradictory character whom Cabral first met when he lived downstairs from her in Harlem. Through the course of this exposé, Torres texts updates to the feds while candidly discussing his assignment of befriending and attempting to essentially entrap his mark. But little does he know that Cabral and Sutcliffe have secretly made contact with and interviewed Al-Akili himself.

Is this a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, or are both men being victimized by a government agency with abusive tactics and blurry justifications? The answer is hardly simple, but the film serves as compelling reportage that such moral quandaries must be addressed in the modern age.

“These were issues we were educating ourselves about for several years,” Sutcliffe says. “Since making the film, I’ve learned so much more that only confirms and layers up the skyscraper of skepticism that I have toward the government’s current approach to the War on Terror. It’s tough toggling between preaching my own opinions, which come from reading material that’s not just in the film, and opening a door to other people who haven’t had that same exposure. This film is not a bible, but hopefully it will trigger an appetite to find out more about what’s taking place.”

Though it’s the first feature collaboration for the directing duo, Cabral and Sutcliffe share a mutual history and interest in the timely themes explored in (T)ERROR. The two met just after college at an afterschool arts program for high schoolers at the Harlem Children’s Zone—where Sutcliffe worked as a video instructor and Cabral taught photography. In 2005, the FBI unjustly arrested one of Sutcliffe’s students—a teenage Muslim girl named Adama Bah—under fabricated suspicions of being a potential suicide bomber. After her father’s deportation and her eventual (but traumatizing) release, Sutcliffe filmed the hour-long vérité portrait, Adama. Cabral, an accomplished photojournalist whose work is part of both the Smithsonian and Whitney collections, served as still photographer on the film. Cabral also shot Bah and other family members of accused terrorists for a book sponsored by the International Center of Photography. So, it’s only natural they would’ve teamed up again for this project.

Meeting up at Video Free Brooklyn—ironically but unintentionally in the line of a surveillance camera’s sight—I sat down with Cabral and Sutcliffe to discuss their approach to a slippery subject, the challenges of working as a team, and the hot water they might’ve found themselves in if they hadn’t lawyered up.

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BRIGHT IDEAS (BI): It’s one thing for Saeed to admit in confidence that he’s working for the FBI, and quite another to be allowed to document his story for the filmgoing public. It’s a jaw-dropping feat. How did you gain his trust?

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE (DS): When he first confessed to Lyric, he expressed a desire to write a book. He wanted her to help him express what happened and what he had done.

LYRIC R. CABRAL (LC): He had actually engaged with another author who was just a horrible writer. I think he realized this, that the guy couldn’t get [the book] off the ground. Saeed was disgruntled and still wanted to tell the story, but I always told him that I’m not really an author. Even though I went to school for journalism, I’m a visual person. But I knew it wasn’t a photojournalism story.

He had a folder containing articles about all the things that he had done, and it just said, “Undercover Informant.” I didn’t even know that the FBI used informants to pursue counterterrorism cases until the Newburgh Four case. I had photographed one of the families, the defendants, working on the case and sitting in the trial. All of these [details] gave me perspective of what Saeed was doing. There was really no way of knowing. The FBI kept this program shrouded in secrecy for so long.

BI: People have gone to prison because of Saeed, which means this film could potentially put him in danger. Why do you think he was willing to spill his guts?

LC: If you look at his history, he’s always been someone who’s gone against the grain. He’s very anti-establishment. He was a Black Panther. In working for the government, there was always, at best, skepticism—and, at worst, a very manipulative person who wanted to prove that he was who he was. He’s always been willing to go public with his participation should it come to that. He has no allegiances, he’s willing to betray anyone. So, in that same spirit, he’s willing to go against his employers in disclosing information because he himself is egocentric and wants his participation to be known.

DS: Also, the people who are in prison because of him—they already know what he looks like, so it doesn’t matter. At the height of his career, he was making hundreds of thousands of dollars with the FBI. By the time we caught up with him, he was barely getting reimbursed for gas money. So he sees this as an opportunity. We weren’t able to pay him, but he still wants that book deal. He wants that Hollywood movie. He’s looking to make this his calling card, so to speak.

BI: (T)ERROR takes a thorny turn once you aim your camera at Khalifah Al-Akili. How did you navigate the gap between betraying Saeed’s trust and the greater good of telling an accurate, well-balanced story?

DS: Lyric and I were incredibly conflicted about that. We felt guilty not disclosing our relationship to Khalifah and, similarly, our relationship with Khalifah to Saeed. Our legal advisors said, “Absolutely, under no circumstances, should you tell either of these men about each other, or the fact that you are filming this person. You could potentially tamper with the investigation, or be accused of tampering, and put yourselves in vulnerable positions.” We didn’t know what was going to happen to Khalifah, but we did make a decision internally that should we possess material that could help or reverse the charges against him, we would come forward.

At that point, if he had been arrested, the investigation would have concluded. Unfortunately, there was a photo on Facebook of him holding a firearm. Because he is a convicted felon, it was violating his parole. He didn’t realize that just holding the gun constituted possession. But we recorded those conversations because we weren’t sure if they should be a part of the film, our own process of navigating this. It’s dramatic to suddenly consider, “What is the role of a filmmaker here?”

BI: Newcomers might be surprised that the film doesn’t resemble, say, a non-fiction version of the Bin Laden raid in Zero Dark Thirty. Could you talk about your filmmaking sensibilities?

LC: When you think “terrorism,” you think Homeland, and action rapidly unfolding week-by-week. The reality is that Saeed is 65 years old. The majority of his surveillance that we were able to capture is sending texts, and him recanting the script that he was given by his FBI superiors. There is a disconnect between what the public expects of a terrorism film versus the practicality, the fact that these cases are made through communications. There’s a lot going on in the film, but it’s more of a character study—of Khalifah, who is the suspected target of the investigation, and Saeed, in how he views the FBI over the course of doing this work for 20 years.

As far as visual aesthetic, we wanted the audience to feel slightly off-kilter. We wanted the style of the film to mirror surveillance. There’s rapid camera movement and the frames are always off, to put you off. You are always aware of the surveillance, its pervasive nature, and how it happens in all of these moments you might not anticipate.

BI: After collecting all this footage, I can’t imagine it was easy to then put the movie together and find its structure.

DS: We were blessed with a trip to the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab. That saved our ass. I’m terrified to think about what the film would be without the week we spent under the tutelage of Lewis Erskine, Jonathan Oppenheim, all of these legends. When they first watched our film, it was 90 minutes of close-ups of eyeballs. They’re like, “This is painful to watch. I can’t even think about the story because from a visual perspective, I can’t get beyond that. Furthermore, all we see is the spy. I can’t care about this asshole, setting other people up. Where is his humanity? Can we start there?” That was a note I’ll never forget from Jesse Moss. He was like, “I want to see him as a father first.” A lot of people go into this film expecting to watch this high-octane spy thriller, and then you see this dorky dad in a chef’s outfit, cheering on the sidelines at a basketball game.

BI: Saeed is certainly presented onscreen as anything but one-dimensional.

DS: It’s not about pinning the tail of the donkey on him. He’s not the only bad guy here. It’s a tragedy because he’s been used by a system, and [we wanted to] make sure that people’s attention would be brought to that fact by the end of the film. A lot of the feedback we’ve received said, “This guy may have done awful things, but I understand that he’s got strings attached to him and someone is yanking those strings.”

BI: What’s the most difficult part about two strong-minded filmmakers working for the same cause, but maybe not always with the same approach?

DS: Maybe there was a lingering moment where one of us liked one scene, and the other person liked another. But creatively, there weren’t any major disagreements. Figuring out the business of it and how to navigate that space has been challenging, though.

LC: Agreed. That’s where the compromise has come in. When you’re presented with a deal, one person may think it’s acceptable, the other may have higher hopes. One person may contest one point, whereas the other person thinks it’s okay. Distribution posed questions about how the film can live, how to fundraise, from whom to ask for money. But ultimately, we both want the film to succeed and do the best it can in the world, to have as a tool for impact and to raise awareness.

BI: As a filmmaking duo, what do you think you both bring to the table in terms of strengths to the other’s weaknesses?

LC: I went to photography school, not film school. Within the process of taking assignments, I’ve had to engage with people on the ground and come back with a picture—usually a portrait. So, one skill that I was able to bring was accessing character. I did know a lot of the players. My weakness was translating that into technical terms. I’m not great at editing. Because I worked in still frames, David helped me a lot in how to cover a scene—beginning, middle and end—and how to frame beyond the single frame. Collectively, we both worked on grants, passing them back and forth. But David brought the format. I had pitched photography, but I didn’t have the treatment-writing skills. I didn’t know how to phrase certain aspects. But David did. He’s a rich writer as far as treatments and engaging non-fiction that will visualize the subject matter, and put it into context.

DS: And having Lyric’s journalism experience was incredibly valuable. I’m a sappy, sentimental person sometimes. I’m like, “Where is the thing that is going to make people sad or mad?” and Lyric’s questioning with a journalistic intent: “Let’s dissect the process here, and find out the relevant characters and angles to fill in the landscape.” Having made a film before, I thought constantly about structure. If we don’t have that arc, we don’t have a film. For a long time, we thought that the investigation would be the first part of the film, and second would be the aftermath: Saeed trying to seek redress for his complaints. Ultimately, it was clear that the investigation is the drama. The film is the arrest. We realized that much sooner than we thought we would.

BI: Were you ever concerned about blowback from the FBI?

DS: Lyric and I put that in the back of our minds. There were definitely high-pressure moments when we were shooting in close contact and were like, “As soon as we contact Khalifah, our cover is blown and they’re going to know that we’re filming Saeed.” Shockingly, that didn’t happen. We had a screening last night at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and [Brennan Center for Justice fellow] Mike German, who has been advising us about a potential outreach campaign, said that maybe this is a good sign that the FBI isn’t investigating journalists. They didn’t search our call history. Or maybe it’s a sign that they’re incompetent, that they’re not connecting the dots. I’m obviously grateful that they didn’t look too deeply because they would have found out we were talking to Saeed.

At the Sundance awards, I said: “This is a dangerous time to trust the FBI.” To see both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times grab that quote—that made me incredibly nervous. Now I’m the guy saying, “Don’t trust the FBI.” Should I self-censor? That’s something I still struggle with. Should I keep my mouth shut and not get in trouble, or should I take advantage of my white privilege and acknowledge the fact that they’re probably not going to go after a white documentary filmmaker? There are no guarantees. There’s always the file, and they’re very likely looking for material they can use to discredit or use against me at some point in the future. I’m very conscious of that when I’m on the internet, or writing emails and texts. Having that little voice in my ear is not pleasant, but I accept that as the price for telling these types of stories.

LC: We’re at a unique point in history where now there are searchable texts of all the documents that Edward Snowden revealed. We understand the technical nature of surveillance. We know about machines like the StingRay, and programs the government uses to monitor internet activity. It’s more in the public consciousness, and people are increasingly pushing back on surveillance abuses. We will see that the Patriot Act lapses, we will see that Laura Poitras won the Pulitzer for her reporting on Edward Snowden, as well as the Oscar in the same year. There’s a popular acceptance and push for these stories that reveal, behind the curtain, what the FBI and our government are doing in our name—what our tax dollars are funding. Hopefully, (T)ERROR will catalyze other filmmakers to see that they can speak truth to power and disclose sensitive stories in a legally-protected—and constitutionally-protected—way.

 

Photo by Jennifer Loeber