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by Kathryn Loggins

Chris Moukarbel, USA 2023

Winner of the US Narrative competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, CYPHERis a fresh take on pseudo-documentary filmmaking. Set in the often chaotic and erratic world of the music industry, the film follows the career of a young rapper named Tierra Whack. Writer-director Chris Moukarbel details her story from her humble beginnings rapping on the streets of Philadelphia to becoming a global sensation, working with pop superstars like Beyonce and Alicia Keys. Using archival footage blended with deft documentary-style camera techniques, Moukarbel paints a picture of a young prodigy exploring all of the facets of stardom, even the ones she didn’t bargain for.

The beginning of the film is presented as a typical, albeit well-told, and intimate music documentary about Whack’s life. She speaks candidly about her upbringing, influences, and her rise to fame, which she sees as both a blessing and a curse. Her energy is infectious and the film is successful in selling her story as the complete truth, in part because she is so genuine and transparent in front of the camera. It isn’t until Tierra has an alarming encounter with a fan after a concert that the story starts shifting into territory that becomes increasingly disturbing and sinister. An anonymous social media account starts posting videos of Tierra in moments she thinks she’s alone; she believes she is being followed and the filmmakers start receiving ominous emails about a conspiracy group called the Ocultists. We learn that this supposedly ancient group selects rising stars to assert their influence in the world and it becomes clear that they have targeted Tierra for their latest ritual. As the tension ramps up, it feels like everyone involved in making CYPHER, including Tierra Whack herself, is reveling in the fact that the audience may not be able to distinguish what is reality and what is fiction. It’s almost as if the film slips out of the filmmaker’s hands halfway through and is propelled forward by an undetectable force. This is where the film soars, as it not only morphs into a thrilling plunge into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories but also becomes a meta-reflection of what artists are willing to sacrifice for fame.