Homeland is the Hollywood version. (T)ERROR is the real thing.
In the feature documentary, which premiered this week at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, everyone is spying on everyone: the informant on the target, the target on the informant, the FBI on the informant, the filmmakers on the FBI. Incredibly, directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe manage to film not just the one doing the surveilling but also the one being surveilled — without either subject knowing the other is also appearing on-camera. It’s a daring feat made even more impressive when you realize the FBI has no idea that the informant they’re using is in fact simultaneously using them. But unlike Homeland or some John le Carré novel, where spying is sexy and the characters are all perspicacious, (T)ERROR depicts the reality of today’s domestic intelligence gathering: it is not glamorous, the vernacular is informal, the surveillance techniques utilized include “advanced” approaches like trying to befriend someone on Facebook, and incompetence abounds (at one point a confidential phone number is discovered by typing it into Google).
With unprecedented access to their subject, “Shariff,” a former Black Panther turned FBI Informant, (T)ERROR sheds light on the systematic targeting of American Muslims that has been the modus operandi for the FBI post–9/11. This approach has infamously resulted in a plethora of dubious incarcerations, including the case of Tarik Shaw, which (T)ERROR follows up on quite literally. Eschewing flashy cinematography and pumped-up music for a ground-level, empathetic approach, the film goes beyond the headlines to examine the human cost to the war on terror. It is a terrific companion piece to Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour in its up-to-the-minute depiction of the United States of Surveillance.
I spoke to Cabral and Sutcliffe over the phone shortly following the film’s world premiere at Sundance. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
When you come out of film school or you come out of journalism school, you’re always encouraged to find a story: read the paper, look at all of the news. When in reality it’s the things closest to you. It’s the people that you meet in your actual life. Just walking through the streets being human beings. Those are the stories you should tell.
NFS: I should let you know that I’m recording this — and the FBI may also be recording it for all we know.
David Felix Sutcliffe: Noted.
NFS: Lyric, when “Shariff” confided in you that he was an FBI informant, did you harbor any doubts that he was telling the truth?
Lyric Cabral: When he met me I was studying photography and I was always taking pictures. Interestingly enough, I had photographed him. And when he later made that confession to me, all I was left with were these two pictures of this man. Through a fortuitous series of events, I went on to report on national security, taking photographs for this case called the Newburgh Four. And while on photojournalism assignment to The Nation, photographing the Newburgh Four, I met the mother of Tarik [Shaw, an FBI target] and she was talking about her son’s case, which we profile in (T)ERROR. She’s telling the details of the case and I’m like, “Oh my God, this [informant] is a guy I know! This is his story.” There was this really awkward moment where I realized I needed a confirmation that the informant was telling the truth. But was I really going to approach this woman, the mother of someone who’s in jail for 15 years, and say, “I know your informant?” But I did because I trusted her — it was just something about her, I knew she was cool.
So all I had was this photo [of the informant]. She didn’t know what he looked like. All she had was the story that her son had told her about being entrapped. And so I gave her that photo and she mailed it to Tarik Shaw. Tarik confirmed, “that’s him.” That was the initial confirmation of the story.
At the height of his career, he was making $100,000 to $250,000 per case.
NFS: And how were you able to convince “Shariff” to allow you to film him working clandestinely for the FBI, without their knowledge?
DFS: He was pretty willing right from the start. Lyric and I were surprised, but we didn’t want to question it. We didn’t want to say, “are you sure about this?” Because we had incredible access and we didn’t want to jeopardize it. I think now that we’re at the end of the road and we look back, and we know him a little bit better, his motivations are a bit clearer. When we met him it was about 7 years, 6 years, since his last big case? And he has not had any big cases since then. At the height of his career, he was making $100,000 to $250,000 per case, but his identity was exposed in one of those cases, which limited his usefulness as an informant to the FBI. They didn’t call him in on any bigger cases anymore and he was frustrated by the lack of money that was coming his way. I think he wanted to wind down his relationship with the FBI, so to speak, and saw this as an opportunity to change gears. I think he wants to get a book deal out of this, and I think he also just wants to have acknowledgement: recognition of what’s he’s done, a record of his work.
Edward Snowden’s revelations really helped us understand the parameters of surveillance and all the manners in which we could possibly be recorded.
NFS: When you’re making a film that the FBI doesn’t want you to make, what kind of precautions do you take? Were you worried about them becoming aware of you working on this and surveilling you, or worse?
LRC: Well because of our awareness of surveillance and because of Edward Snowden’s revelations, I have been able to see charts and databases and power point presentations, and that was very helpful, to actually understand surveillance. Yes, it will be email. Yes, it could be phones. Yes, it’s cell tower pinging. Yes, you should use a Faraday bag. Edward Snowden’s revelations really helped us understand the parameters of surveillance and all the manners in which we could possibly be recorded.
DFS: We encrypt our hard drives. We use encrypted emails. But it was difficult to communicate with funders and people who don’t use encryption. The Ford Foundation had a meeting recently with other filmmakers who were working on sensitive topics, a kind of dialogue about what we can do in the future in order to protect journalists and their methods and sources, as well as to ensure that they aren’t inhibited in any way from developing relationships with funders to support that work.
LRC: Because really I think we’re in a new frontier of journalism. When you have such incredible access. When you have a whistleblower or source that’s willing to give journalists full access to what they’re doing. I think it’s a question of journalism, of ethics, and negotiating those parameters. And in our case, we got advice from the ACLU and The Center for Constitutional Rights: “this man is letting us film everything. What should we not show in the public interest? What is actually classified material for national security purposes versus public interest?” And that was an interesting internal debate we had.
I don’t know if I was a target or if I was a genuine friend. There are a lot of circumstances when I look back in my life that could have made me a target.
NFS: This film is very much about betrayals, or at least changes in personal relationships that can happen as a result of an acquaintance turning out to be an informant. Did you ever feel like your relationship with Shariff mirrored this, in that he was transitioning from an acquaintance of yours to the subject of a film?
LRC: Honestly that is a question that I grapple with. I don’t know if I was a target [of Shariff’s] or if I was a genuine friend. There are a lot of circumstances when I look back in my life that could have made me a target, based on journalistic activities. I had just come from Cuba, I had met people in Cuba that are now seen as terrorists by the U.S. Government and very shortly after that, I met this man. It’s weird, I do trust him, and I had to work in that capacity.
DFS: Just to clarify, is your question, “are we also betraying him the way that he has betrayed his friends?”
NFS: I guess the question is, did you ever feel like there was a time where you had to choose between a personal relationship, and doing important work? That seems like a choice that he himself has faced.
DFS: Lyric’s relationship was obviously the cornerstone of this project and I think she did an incredible job of putting that relationship in the closet. That is the foundation of this film, but she didn’t let that impede or in any way hinder her as a journalist. There was never a single moment where she said, “I don’t think that’s appropriate to show that because of our relationship.” It was always about the journalism. About the story. And obviously her respect for his privacy and safety.
LRC: I found a book that informed my journalistic practices for this story, The Journalist and the Murderer. We didn’t want [Shariff] to go into the film thinking it was going to be an entirely flattering portrait. We told him we’re fact-checking the story, we’re going to go back to the mosque, we’re going to ask about the fatwa… he was well aware that this wasn’t going to be a flattering portrait. But we didn’t tell him that we were filming Khalifah [Al-Akili, the FBI target Shariff is assigned to surveil] at the time because we could not.
DFS: We didn’t want to share too much about our own political views, but we have issues with the way the FBI is conducting these investigations, and we think the arc of [Shariff’s] career, his relationship with the FBI, is evidence of the FBI’s change in mission: going from investigating crimes to a model of preempting crimes.
This film has enabled him to see his role in the machine.
LRC: And he saw that directly: look at his pay. In looking at his pay post 9/11 to the pay in Pittsburgh, it went from $150,000 to $200,000 a month to barely $1,000 a month. He wasn’t able to put that change in context, he just saw he was getting broker and broker. But I think this film has enabled him to see his role in the machine.
DFS: He’s not the target, it’s the FBI who has the power here.
NFS: And David, had he seen your previous film? Adama?
DFS: He did. He did watch “Adama”.
NFS: When you said that he was aware of your viewpoint, “Adama” could have been part of that.
LRC: “Adama” was an entirely sympathetic portrait of a character that was critical of the government and it asked, “why did you arrest her?”, and he totally felt that.
DFS: Because of who he is, his primary concern was his ego. He was like, “my story’s hotter than that!”
LRC: “This movie’s gonna go farther, right?”
DFS: He was very concerned about that. He was like, “I think my story is more valuable than that story. I acknowledge it, it’s a strong piece of work, it’s a strong story, but I think my own story trumps hers by leaps and bounds.”
NFS: And how do you think he feels about this film?
DFS: Four and a half stars out of five.
LRC: The half star missing being his perception of himself being unhappy [in the film]. He said that the first scene of the film, he felt that that was truly the person that he is, but unfortunately that’s not what we were able to document. Yes, you were yourself in the opening scene of the film, but you were not dealing with the government. Unfortunately, while you were working with them, this is the result. So that half a star was his perception of how his personality has changed over the years because of the FBI.
NFS: How did you approach both of you being based in New York, but your subject in Pittsburgh, making sure that you’re there for key moments but also trying to maintain your life back home?
We got incredibly lucky. I’m not a religious person but there are so many events in the life of this film that have caused me to seriously question my position.
DFS: It was pretty chaotic trying to work on this film while also fundraising and having to work. Lyric and I were both working part time jobs just to pay rent and feed ourselves…
LRC: While traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh and trying to be there for active moments…
DFS: When he gave us a call, we ran right out. You don’t want to miss a single opportunity. We got incredibly lucky. I’m not a religious person but there are so many events in the life of this film that have caused me to seriously question my position. You know there’s a higher force here, in play, I think, in guiding us in certain circumstances, in certain positions, in key moments and things.
Be conscious of the relationships that are absolutely necessary in order for you to proceed. Seek out mentors and ask people for advice.
NFS: This is both of your first features. What advice would you have for other filmmakers?
DFS: What’s going to keep you going is your relationship to the project. You have to be realistic about the marketplace and the industry that we’re working in. Be conscious of the relationships that are absolutely necessary in order for you to proceed. Seek out mentors and ask people for advice. As many people, as much as possible, without being obnoxious. “I care very much about this project and you’ve done similar work and I respect you because of it, and I’d love your input on it.” Laura Poitras, she was really supportive on my first film. [“Adama”] wasn’t a feature but her support on that project, watching cuts and giving me feedback, was so critical and it helped me see myself as a filmmaker. The fact that this woman whose work has changed me as a human and a filmmaker, and the fact that she was acknowledging me as a peer and giving me feedback and her time, made an enormous difference in my own approach to the subject.
LRC: [David’s film] was in a very bad place and I know he was super shy to show it to her at that point because she was someone whose work he’d idolized, but because he was so humble and had previously approached her, now that we were making (T)ERROR we were comfortable enough for her to show her the project in its nascent stages. She recognized it for what it would be.
LRC: Immediately. And that’s only because David had the audacity to go to her before. This was in the middle of Citizenfour. She was in Moscow when we approached her with (T)ERROR and she was totally supportive.
My piece of advice would be, when you come out of film school or you come out of journalism school, you’re always encouraged to find a story: read the paper, look at the news. When in reality it’s the things closest to you. It’s the people that you meet in your actual life. Just walking through the streets being human beings. Those are the stories you should tell. The stories that are closest to you, you always have the best access. The stories that truly come from your heart and that you feel a passion to tell, as opposed to looking for a project that’s more commercially viable or may be more easily funded. I really think that you have to work at the stories that are closest to you.