Full Frame (Saturday): It's not paranoia if they're really after you | Arts

Full Frame (Saturday): It's not paranoia if they're really after you

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Update: After this post, (T)ERROR won The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award, sharing the prize, for the first time in Full Frame history, with another film, Kings of Nowhere. See the full list of award-winners, which were announced yesterday, here.

Audiences mainlining three full days of this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival could be excused if they donned tin foil hats and began speaking Esperanto.

At a minimum, festivalgoers might feel a distinct disincentive to live near a nuclear power facility (Containment) or coal mine (Overburden), call the police (Peace Officer), use the Internet (Deep Web), or travel to Russia (The Term), Mexico (Cartel Land and Kingdom of Shadows) or any Texas border town (Western, screening tonight).

Of course, past Full Frame festivals also curbed my desire to visit Sea World (Blackfish) and eat at McDonald’s (Super Size Me). Well, maybe not the last one ...

These trepidations aren’t paranoia, which entails delusions of persecution and unwarranted suspicion. The real and very frightening issues addressed in those and other Full Frame selections such as 3½ Minutes and Uyghurs, Prisoners of the Absurd are the products of stark, sober and skilled documentary filmmaking.

In that vein, Full Frame Saturday also brought (T)ERROR, an engrossing and multi-faceted look at domestic counterterrorism through the eyes and exploits of Saeed “Shariff” Torres, a 63-year-old ex-Black Panther and longtime paid FBI informant. Saeed gave filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe extraordinary and surreptitious access to his latest assignment, an undercover sting targeting Khalifa, a white thirtysomething Muslim convert living in Pittsburgh.

Producers tout (T)ERROR as the first documentary that embeds filmmakers inside an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. In so doing, the film tackles highly relevant and weighty issues of governmental surveillance and law enforcement overreach.

But that achievement only scratches the surface of the complex character studies that lend (T)ERROR its narrative depth. Is Khalifa a dangerous radical-in-waiting, a victim of an unjust legal system or a loudmouthed but otherwise harmless knucklehead?

Meanwhile, is Saeed a wise curmudgeon who has accepted the realities of this world and parlayed them to his benefit? Is he a duplicitous snitch? Is he a hero? Or is he a sociopath, a character trait that makes him an effective informant but left him estranged from his friends and culture?

In tackling these questions, Sutcliffe and Cabral—whose conflicted acquaintance with Saeed gave rise to this film project—utilize both vérité and retrospective footage. The directors also remarkably shift their focus and presentation mid-production, decisions that push the ethical envelope of documentary filmmaking. The result is a daring and intoxicating exposé bolstered by the foundation of a poignant character arc.

This year’s Full Frame superlatives will be announced Sunday at the midday Awards Barbeque. However, (T)ERROR is already my clear-cut choice as the festival’s best film. And oh … Granda Frato observas vin.

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