An in-depth Q&A hosted by the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism and led by filmmaker-in-chief Robert Greene, featured filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe explaining what went into their Sundance award-winning documentary (T)ERROR. The co-directors appeared for two days at the center as the kick-off visiting artists for the 2016-17 school year in August. Their film is the first ever to detail an active FBI investigation from the inside: following the life of informant Saeed Torres as he tracks a terror suspect in Philadelphia. But the deeply engaging and revelatory film wouldn’t exist without a handful of chance occurrences, the first of which was Cabral’s first contact with Torres more than 10 years ago.
As she told the audience, Cabral first met Torres when she moved into the same Harlem brownstone where he was living, in 2002. Then an undergraduate journalism student at Columbia, Cabral said Torres interested her from the start, and she went out of her way to get his attention. But after a couple years of cultivating a relationship with Torres, in 2005 he disappeared. It was then that he confessed to being an FBI informant, something Cabral said made her feel betrayed, but also gave her a story to follow.
The next chance occurrence led to Cabral and Sutcliffe’s collaboration on the project. The two had been teaching together at an after-school program in Harlem, when the FBI arrested one of Sutcliffe’s students. The arrest and ensuing court case led Sutcliffe to make a 55-minute documentary about his student, entitled Adama, and sparked his interest in FBI informants. When Sutcliffe told Cabral he wanted to make a documentary about an informant, Cabral said she actually knew one and (T)ERROR was born.
The filmmakers explained most of the process of actually shooting Torres’s investigation only took a matter of months, from the fall of 2011 through the spring of 2012. What followed was a sequence of applying for and receiving grants, networking and getting the film into festivals and a final year of editing. The finished film, which premiered at Sundance in 2015, cohesively leads audiences through a series of questions and answers, and uses their preconceptions to set up certain façades before knocking them down. But Cabral and Sutcliffe explained it took a good deal of outside help to arrive at the finished film.
(T)ERROR is a film that builds a reality in viewers’ minds, playing off what they think they know about the FBI and terrorism, only to effectively disassemble it completely. But the process of building this reality is one with which the filmmakers struggled. Cabral and Sutcliffe told Murray Center students the opening of the film was a crucial part of that process and that getting it to where it is now was a real struggle. They said they edited several iterations of the opening scene before settling on the one in the film. As it stands, the film begins with Torres telling the filmmakers he doesn’t want to be filmed, only to consent a moment later. It establishes the unreliable, and confrontational relationship between Torres and the filmmakers that adds an air of mystery and authority, which they later strip away.
Sutcliffe cited filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour; My Country, My Country) as an inspiration and a mentor, but also said Poitras was one of several voices who cautioned him and Cabral about the potential legal pitfalls of making (T)ERROR. Cabral herself called the film an “ethical mess,” but noted there was also the possibility of legal infractions that the filmmakers had to be very careful to avoid, including obstruction of justice. With help from legal advisors, they managed to make their film without breaking the law, but in doing so they were forced to withhold certain information from their subjects, until the film was complete.