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Filmmaker exposes FBI counter-terrorism strategy

Lyric R. Cabral is the co-director of "(T)error," the first documentary that follows an FBI informant on a counter-terrorism mission.

msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February. 

Lyric R. Cabral, 32, is a photojournalist and filmmaker raised in Washington, D.C. She is the co-director of "(T)error," the first documentary that follows an FBI informant on a counter-terrorism mission, and the recent winner of a Sundance Film Festival award. Cabral recently chatted with msnbc about Gordon Parks and the making of "(T)error."

"Close Guantanamo! What’s going on? That needs to be done, like now!"'

Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:

I’m a journalist and a storyteller. I like to expose injustice.

Describe some of the sights and sounds from your childhood and how they have influenced your films?

I remember a primary sound was the camera click, the shutter. My dad was a persistent photographer, he was always documenting my childhood.

At what age did you pick up the camera?

I started photographing in high school around the age of 15. As soon as I started, I realized it was what I wanted to do professionally.

How far back can you trace your family history?

I only remember meeting my great-great grandmother, from North Carolina, whose family had been slaves.

Who or where do you draw creative inspiration from?

The first photographs that moved me and let me know as a black woman that I could make this a career, were the photographs of Gordon Parks. Specifically, his work in Harlem, documenting the Fontenelle family; a story about poverty. Those images really hit me in tenth grade. They were very powerful. I appreciated his storytelling and humanity. He was so sensitive in the treatment of his subjects.

At age 16, Adama Bah was arrested by the FBI and detained on false allegations that she was a potential suicide bomber. New York, NY, 2010. 


How did you capture the world around you in high school?

My reporting is based on just visual observation. At the time in D.C. when I was learning photography, I knew I was drawn to portraiture. I was drawn to people. It became about, “Who do I see? What type of people are most in need of a story being told for wide audiences?” I saw homeless people, and that was my first photojournalist venture. I met a homeless person who lived outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. For about six months, we’d hang out every day. That was my first experience trying to tell someone’s story in photographs.

Tell me about your student in New York who was accused of being a terrorist:

I didn’t personally teach her, but Adama Bah was a student in the video unit at TRUCE [Media and Arts after-school program]. All of a sudden Adama didn’t come. Per protocol, when staff from TRUCE made a home visit they found a family that didn’t speak English, they were from Guinea. Adama was gone, and her father was gone. They had been detained in the middle of the night, technically on immigration violations, but it was based on suspicions that she was a suicide bomber. She was 16 [years old] at the time of her arrest … she was picked up by the FBI and held six weeks in a detention center in Pennsylvania. Ultimately, Davis Sutcliffe, who is my co-director on "(T)error," began to make a film [“Adama”] on Adama, and I was the still photographer.

What was the “ah ha” moment when you realized photography was a limited medium?

In pursuit of finding a family who Adama’s family could relate to, I met Alicia McWilliams, the aunt of David Williams. Her nephew was being accused of trying to bomb the Riverdale Temple and a Jewish synagogue in the Bronx … It was very hard to photograph [Alicia’s experiences while her nephew was on trial]. You're photographing issues of entrapment, racial profiling. As a photographer, I was struggling to tell the story [of the Newburgh four]. I realized you need to hear these people’s voices. I bought a video camera and started following [Alicia] … I documented the Newburgh four case for The Nation and the Village Voice. Some of my footage was purchased by filmmakers who did the documentary for Newburgh Sting which is now on HBO.   

Leonard “Red” Jackson, whom Gordon Parks photographed in 1948 for Life Magazine, at a block party in Harlem.

How did the relationship with [the protagonist] Saeed Torres, of your debut documentary (T)error come about?

There was a very intriguing man that was my neighbor in Harlem ... We had conversations in his apartment for four years ... on foreign policy, Islam. He told me he was a member of the Black Panther Party. I went to school one day and came back and the apartment was cleared out … he confessed to me that the apartment in Harlem was a safe house designed to investigate the “terrorist” Tarik Shaw

What was the biggest misconception you were trying to disprove in the film?

I hope that the film opens room for doubt. Very few people are willing to think that maybe a [suspected] terrorist is innocent after 9/11. No one entertains the reasonable doubt for a [suspected] terrorist. I hope the film encourages people to look beyond media headlines, and to really look critically at these faces, and not to take the government’s word for it.

Was there ever a point at which anyone on the film team felt threatened?

We reached out to the FBI for comment. We have yet to hear back. We never felt threatened … because of [Edward] Snowden’s disclosure, we were able to better understand the matrices of surveillance.

What is your tactic to get people to trust you? 

We go back to the heart of the story. The reason we all agreed to do this. That is often the best encouragement for a subject who is getting weary. Showing footage is helpful to show subjects our vision and how we see them.

How did you and your co-director David use your racial identity to operate?

I know as a woman of color, it’s a little harder for me to access white people. Going into the film we didn’t know who the target would be. David is a white man, so we are the complete opposite in body. Collectively, we should be able to access anything. We shot everything together with two cameras. We were the only crew we had, but there were situations where our subjects felt comfortable with one of us shooting … such as in the mosque. I could not film that because it was on the male side. I could, there have been journalists who do get access, but would that be genuine access?

What project are you most proud of at this moment?

I photographed someone that Gordon Parks photographed for Life magazine in 1948—Red Jackson. He was the leader of a Harlem gang, the “Midtowners.” That body of work had influenced me. My photographs are now included in the book, “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument”.

A family in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

Battle of Algiers” and “Killer of Sheep

What was your favorite documentary of the year?

"Evolution of a Criminal" by Darius Clark Monroe. 

If you had a chance to speak to President Obama, what would you say?

Close Guantanamo! What’s going on? That needs to be done, like now!

If you had to rewrite history …

The original Africans who sold their people into captivity, would have never fallen for that ruse.

What were your memories of Black History Month as a child? What do you make of it today?

I went to pretty much all white private schools my whole life, so Black History Month was my time to shine, I was ready … demonstrations and book reports! 

Follow Lyric on Twitter @camera_meander and her film on Facebook

Check out more film directors: Amma Asante: ‘I’m changing the narrative for little girls’