This Sunday at midnight Congress will have to make a decision whether or not to renew the Patriot Act. A controversial post-9/11 form of legislation, the act has gained criticism for its overreach, which includes government collection and storage of telephone data, and more broadly, the price citizens are expected to pay in the forfeiture of our rights to privacy in the name of “national security.” These debates have gained increasing salience in light of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks in June 2013.
But almost a decade before Snowden, in a brownstone in Harlem, Lyric R. Cabral found herself befriending a neighbor who later revealed himself to be an FBI-Informant. That chance encounter has now blossomed into the foundation behind Cabral’s critically-acclaimed debut documentary film, (T)ERROR. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the film feels like a psychological thriller as Cabral follows her former neighbor during an FBI entrapment sting unfolding in real-time.
Blavity caught up with Cabral to talk about her journey to becoming a documentary filmmaker, the often overlooked intersections of race and religion in the War on Terror, and the legacy of surveillance from Garvey to the present #BlackLivesMatter movement.
I am a visually acute journalist who works in the mediums of photography and film. I am drawn to document stories seldom seen in mainstream media, and my work explores the intersections of race, surveillance, religion and homeland security, post 9/11.
Journalism is my primary form of activism, through which I seek to expose injustice and call attention to issues in need of reform, celebration or visibility. Through my verité work, I specifically hope to reframe narratives and representations of African-Americans and Muslims for a wide audience. My journalism is much inspired by these words from Cape Verdean/ Guinea Bissauan independence leader Amilcar Cabral: “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…”
What inspired you to make films?
I came to documentary filmmaking through photojournalism while working on a long-term personal photo essay that was ultimately published in the Nation. In 2010 I met the family of David Williams IV who, at that time, was a defendant in the Newburgh Four terrorism case. When I became acquainted with David’s mother Elizabeth and aunt Alicia, David was about to go on trial for participating in the “bombing” of a synagogue and Jewish temple in the Bronx, and for conspiring to shoot down military planes at Stewart Air National Guard base in Newburgh, NY. “Bombing” is in quotations because the bombs, provided to David and his three co-defendants by FBI informant Shahed Hussain, were inert and were never at risk of exploding.
I was fortunate to gain the McWilliams family’s trust and photographed the African-American family’s experiences as they went through a high-profile terrorism trial in New York City. I sat through each day of the six-week trial and, on October 19, 2010, I watched as a jury convicted the Newburgh Four. Before the verdict was read in full I left the courtroom knowing that I needed to document David’s family as they walked out of the court building. In this moment, I recognized that photography would be an insufficient medium through which to document the complexities of the family’s reaction. I had a video camera with me and as David’s aunt Alicia walked out of the court in tears, I began to film her. This footage was incorporated into the HBO documentary “The Newburgh Sting,” and effectively began my career as a documentary filmmaker. Although I still continue to photograph regularly, the nuance of some stories cannot be solely captured through still images, and I have come to value the medium of documentary film as a more holistic form of journalism.
Who have been some of your major influencers? What other mediums do you draw from?
I am inspired primarily by the photographic and cinematic work of Gordon Parks, whose sensitivity and non-judgmental observation of subjects is something I aspire to achieve through my work. Similarly, the cinema verité films of Albert Maysles are a creative influence for me, as they demonstrate both a strong love of humanity and a keen visual sense. I also draw creative inspiration from the paintings of Kehinde Wiley, whose work brilliantly juxtaposes the modern African-American experience with the traditionally celebrated work of European renaissance artists. I appreciate Wiley’s visual affirmations of diverse Black identity and how he has redefined perceptions of African-Americans within the fine art world.
What led you to make the (T)ERROR documentary?
From 2002-2005, while studying journalism as an undergraduate student in New York City, I lived in a small, three-floor brownstone in Harlem. My downstairs neighbor, Saeed, was quite intriguing — he frequently blasted Gil Scott Heron and Fela Kuti tunes at high volume, was dapperly attired in tailored, Afrocentric clothing, and marijuana consistently wafted from beneath his door. I purposed to get to know Saeed and, one day, he invited me into his garden-level apartment. This invitation spawned three years of nearly diurnal conversations with Saeed in the apartment about politics, current affairs and his involvement in the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. I watched as people floated in and out of Saeed’s bachelor-pad-like apartment, including renowned jazz musician Tarik Shah. I also noted that Saeed had 2 cell phones, ready access to large amounts of cash, and that he frequently travelled around the United States and abroad. One Thursday afternoon, on May 28, 2005, I returned to the brownstone to find that Saeed had abruptly disappeared. His apartment was completely empty, devoid of furniture or signs that anyone had ever lived in the space. As I stared into the vacant apartment, Saeed called me, speaking in an anxious tone. “I have something major to tell you, but I need you to come visit me,” he explained. “I’m in South Carolina now.”
A few months later I traveled to South Carolina, where Saeed disclosed that the Harlem brownstone, in which we had conversed openly for three years, was, in fact, an FBI safe house. The apartment had been wired with audio and video surveillance, specifically to record persons of interest whom the FBI suspected of terrorism, and the Bureau had paid all of Saeed’s rent and expenses. Unbeknownst to me, Saeed was instrumental in placing me under FBI surveillance — I now had an FBI file, documenting my interactions in the apartment between the ages of 19 and 22. Saeed further revealed that he left New York City immediately after the arrest of Tarik Shah, who had been the subject of a prolonged FBI terrorism investigation. After Saeed’s unsolicited confession, I was dually repulsed by the personal implications of his actions and attracted to the tremendous potential of his story. From 2005-2011, I called Saeed once a month asking simply “How are you and where are you?”
Beginning in 2005, I began an ongoing photography project called “USA VS. we the people,” documenting the family members of Muslim-Americans who have been accused or convicted of crimes of terrorism. Through this reporting I visited Muslim communities throughout the Unites States, attended terrorism trials and came to better understand the FBI’s counterterrorism strategies and tactics. Each of the families that I photographed reported that an informant was involved in their respective cases — nearly 50 percent of all terrorism convictions after 9/11 have involved the use of a paid FBI informant.
While observing these families and their experiences, I felt compelled to revisit Saeed’s story, as very few people have access to an FBI informant who is willing to go on the record. With observation comes obligation, and I felt compelled to document Saeed’s experiences so as to better inform the public about the FBI’s use of informants in counterterrorism sting operations.
What was the process like creating (T)ERROR?
(T)ERROR is my first documentary film and while making the film from 2011-2014 I learned a lot throughout the filmmaking process. As I come from a photojournalism background, the most difficult part of the process for me was editing the film. I love production, being out in the field gathering interviews, collecting footage and engaging subjects in the creative process. However editing is quite challenging, as I often feel atomized and constrained by the edit room.
Another difficult aspect of making (T)ERROR was learning to adapt digital and physical security protocols into my reporting so as to protect the confidentiality of subjects’ participation and to protect myself from invasive government surveillance. These protocols included data encryption, off the record messaging and anonymous Internet browsing/VPN usage — these tools were critical while in production as the subjects in the film were all under FBI surveillance (presumably myself as well) and I wanted to safeguard the information that they were providing, in confidence.
One of the major reasons that (T)ERROR is so powerful is that it is the first time we get to see a government sting operation unfold in real time. But this is done through the lives of Black Muslims in the US. How does this perspective offer nuance and amplify how we understand the effects of post-9/11 surveillance programs?
Black Muslims in the United States are positioned at a unique intersection of oppressions, bearing the weight of both institutionalized racism (inside and outside the Muslim community) and our government’s war on (T)ERROR. Post 9/11, Black Muslims are increasingly being classified as terrorists and have been charged in some of the most high-profile terrorism cases (Newburgh Four Case, Liberty City Seven case). I find it important to also note that the first woman to be placed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list is Assata Shakur, who bears an Islamic surname and was involved in nationalist movements for African-American liberation.
Saeed, the main character of (T)ERROR, is a 63-year-old Puerto Rican and African American Muslim who was formerly a member of the Black Panther Party. For the past 23 years Saeed has worked as an FBI counterterrorism informant — he has used his personal experiences in service of the Bureau, introducing himself to investigative targets as a radical, anti-government, Islamic militant who has access to illegal goods and services. The film examines how Saeed made the transition from idealistic revolutionary to foot soldier in the war on terror, and also explores his role in setting up Black Muslim Tarik Shah. The film moreover documents intimate scenes at Masjid at-Taqwa in Brooklyn, a predominantly African-American mosque attended by both Tarik and Saeed. By illumining the experiences of Black Muslims, it is my aim that the film sheds light on the lesser-seen experiences of this heavily-monitored population and diversifies popular perceptions of Islam in the United States.
Even if the technology has changed, (T)ERROR highlights the fact that neither government surveillance nor the government’s use of informants are new, especially within social movements. What conversations do you hope (T)ERROR open ups, especially in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement?
During recent Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore revolving around the police homicide of Freddie Gray, it is reported that the FBI engaged surveillance helicopters in a flight path over the city in an effort to provide support to police on the ground. The ACLU describes this FBI surveillance as illegal and broad in scope, classifying protestors and those engaged in constitutionally protected civil disobedience as persons of interest. This blanket unregulated surveillance is similar to the FBI’s widespread use of confidential informants in targeted communities of color.
The FBI suffers from a grave diversity problem — its staff of special agents is predominately composed of white males. Conversely, the FBI’s informant pool reflects the agency’s highest rates of diversity — 15,000 undercover informants are currently deployed, primarily in communities of color, throughout the United States. One of the conversations that I hope (T)ERROR inspires is highlighting the personal nature of FBI surveillance. It is important to note that FBI informants are selectively paired with investigative targets based on shared commonalities. In FBI parlance, a target will likely be receptive to an informant who looks like them, talks like them and is engaged in similar behavior or activities. In other words, the FBI will hire Black informants to target Black people engaged in social movements, such as the national Say Her Name and Black Lives Matter movements.
The FBI hired its first African-American informants in the 1930s, specifically to target Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association. The Bureau continued to recruit African American informants in earnest throughout the 1960s and 70s, utilizing them as paid agents of the Bureau’s Black Desk and Ghetto Informant programs. These programs were used to specifically target the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, Republic of New Africa, US Organization, SNCC and other Black civil rights groups. Based on the FBI’s history of illegal surveillance, as typified through COINTELPRO revelations, it is fair to assume that, right now, the FBI is hiring “protestors” to infiltrate the Black Lives Matter movement. (T)ERROR illustrates the diversity of informant-driven FBI surveillance, which takes place on Facebook, Twitter, in houses of worship, in restaurants and other publicly accessible locales.
Blavity’s audience has a lot of up-and-coming filmmakers, poets, journalists and other creatives. What advice do you have for them as they start to navigate their careers?
I would encourage up-and-coming journalists and filmmakers to trust their instincts and to tell stories that they have yet to see reported in the media. I also challenge new documentary makers to find a niche of reporting, what old school journalists would classify as a beat, in which to make their mark. I think it is incredibly valuable to become an expert in a certain area of reporting to cultivate sources and leads over time and be considered a “go to” for certain stories. I also think it is critical to cultivate a strong personal vision when creating a body of work, through which your art is easily distinguishable from what others may produce.
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