(T)ERROR is a jaw-dropping film. From the first frame, it is hard to believe what you are seeing on the screen. That feeling does not diminish as the film continues; it intensifies. I was first introduced to (T)ERROR as a work-in-progress when it was awarded the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Documentary programmer Thom Powers, one of the administrators of the grant, introduced the sample. After it played, he said, “I’m going to ask the first, obvious, question: WTF?”
This euphemistic acronym is perhaps the only reasonable response to this film, and on more than one level. (T)ERROR is the first film to document an FBI undercover informant sting operation in real time—and without the knowledge or permission of the FBI. It is astounding that this footage even exists. However, first-time feature directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe are not content to rest on their unprecedented access to an FBI informant. How deep they are willing to go and where they allow this story to take them sustains the WTF feeling throughout the 84-minute film.
WTF should not be reserved only for the feats of access and documentary filmmaking we are seeing here. Cabral and Sutcliffe connect the dots by telling a very individual story that pulls back the curtain on huge structural issues that are global in scope. This is exceptional documentary filmmaking—and the very best solution to the tired art vs. issue debate. Indeed, the bigger WTF should go to the incredibly counterproductive post-9/11 “war on terror.” Not since Laura Poitras’ The Oath (2008) has this issue been laid bare so effectively and incisively on the big screen.
As a filmmaker, I am inspired by Lyric and David’s accomplishments with (T)ERROR. There is real courage here and a certain brashness of imagination and actualization on display. But then, many things seem impossible until someone goes and does them. Along with Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, the bar has been raised for WTF documentary filmmaking this year.
The final—though somewhat expected—WTF is for the legal challenges that Lyric and David are facing in releasing the film. As many readers already know, any documentary—and especially a controversial one—requires a certain level of legal vetting as well as an insurance policy for errors and omissions. Knowing the sensitive nature of this material, the filmmakers budgeted $20,000 for these services. They took supreme care in consulting with some of the best legal minds in the world to confirm that their journalistic techniques were completely legal. They followed legal and ethical norms with diligence throughout the process.
What they were not prepared for was the difficulty in finding an insurance policy.
After a wide search, only one company was willing to write a policy—at 400 percent of the going rate. After committing substantial time and raising money from many of the most prestigious film-funding sources in the world, securing a theatrical distributor and a slot on PBS, the filmmakers are now faced with a $70,000 shortfall. This month, they started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the unprecedented legal and insurance costs.
This is what is known as the chilling effect—not censorship per se, but a climate of fear, instilled by authoritarianism, bad policy and a lack of accountability, which can render filmmakers and distributors risk-averse. This needs to be discussed alongside Poitras’ recent lawsuit brought against the US government for a consistent pattern of detainment, searches and harassment when entering the country over the course of six years.
Perhaps the most devastating effect of this kind of systemic stifling of vital voices is felt not by the filmmakers but by their subjects and potential subjects. David, Laura and Lyric all show supreme courage in the stories they chose to tell. However, their courage is dwarfed by the courage of their subjects. There is a bond of trust between filmmakers and subjects in these stories that depends so heavily on exclusive access. Implicitly and explicitly, when a filmmaker takes on a story of this nature, she or he is making a sacred promise: I will tell your story to the world with integrity; the risk you are taking in trusting me will not be betrayed; it will not be wasted. I can only imagine how these filmmakers would feel if they could not deliver on this promise. Moreover, if they fail, will the next Saeed Torres (the subject of David and Lyric’s film) choose to reveal himself? Will the next Edward Snowden?
We cannot underestimate the importance of (T)ERROR getting a wide release. It is crucial that the documentary community, as well as all citizens who believe in free speech and freedom of the press, stand behind Lyric and David (as well as Laura). The result we want—the result that entrenched powers fear—is that their voices will be strengthened through these battles, not silenced. We should also allow ourselves to be inspired by their work and their courage in being unafraid to speak truth to power.