Starting in the 1990s, when Assia Boundaoui was a young child, the residents of her Arab-American neighbourhood in Bridgeview, Illinois, began to suspect that their every move was being monitored by the FBI. Agents would show up unannounced at their doorsteps, random men would go through their trash and fiddle with their streetlights at odd hours, unknown cars would be parked outside their houses for weeks on end and curious clicking noises could be heard on their phone calls. For decades, they lived with the uneasy suspicion that they were under surveillance. In her directorial debut The Feeling of Being Watched, Boundaoui pieces together newspaper reports and government documents to discover that they were right: her neighbourhood was one of the targets of “Operation Vulgar Betrayal,” (OVB) an FBI counterterrorism probe that surveilled and collected thousands of pages of information on Islamic philanthropic communities both before and after 9/11.
Boundaoui opens the film with a quote from Michel Foucault’s “On Panopticism” superimposed over an aerial shot of the director’s neighbourhood. It might seem like too obvious of a reference for a documentary about surveillance, but it underscores the precise nature of Boundaoui’s project. The Feeling of Being Watched is not exactly an investigative or didactic exposé; despite Boundaoui’s many dogged Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for more details about OVB — why it began, what information was collected as part of its probe and whether it still continues — answers remain elusive even at the end of the film’s 86-minute runtime. Instead, Boundaoui gently draws viewers into something much more intimate and revelatory: the “feeling,” as the title suggests, of living under xenophobic surveillance and the psychosocial damage it inflicts on a community.
As the director interviews various members of her tight-knit neighbourhood, people open up about the ways in which they began to police and diminish themselves because they never knew when they were or were not being watched. A mother recounts telling her kids to avoid describing things they liked as “bomb,” which was popular teenage slang at the time. Others mention being hyper-aware of their behaviour even within their own homes, and learning to lower their voices or cease conversation when on the streets. Essentially, as Boundaoui illustrates, they started behaving as if they were in a Panopticon — a prison-structure designed to make inmates always visible to an invisible watcher, so that the fear of being seen forces them to self-regulate. The paranoia in Bridgeview was so pervasive that it took two years for residents to realize that a high school friend of Boundaoui’s, who claimed that she was being followed by men in cars, was actually schizophrenic.
In the most fascinating parts of The Feeling of Being Watched, Boundaoui turns this reflective lens onto herself — not just as a member of the community, but also as a filmmaker telling this story from the inside. At one point, she interviews a former assistant attorney-general about OVB and Islamophobia in the FBI. It’s not a particularly hard-hitting interview — he’s too diplomatic, and she’s too polite — but Boundaoui follows it up with a sincere reflection on how her deeply entrenched desire to be a “good Muslim” in the eyes of the U.S. government prevents her from doing anything that might ruffle their feathers too much. In another instance, when her mother receives a visit from the very FBI agent who started OVB (astonishingly, he was briefly suspended for sexual harassment and religious discrimination but reinstated after 9/11), she refuses to pursue him as a source for fear of her life: “I don’t care if that makes me a bad journalist,” she says. Her candor is both refreshing and riveting, offering a rare glimpse into the emotional labor required for activism that comes — as it often does for people of color — from the intersection of the personal and the political.
Unlike many documentaries of its ilk, The Feeling of Being Watched is not weighed down by doomsaying or sensationalism; instead, the picture it paints of community organization is genuinely hopeful. As Boundaoui attempts to mobilize more and more people to pressure the government into releasing the OVB’s files on them, the immigrant community around her emerges as generous, warm and endlessly supportive — whether it’s her fiery mother, who tells her she’s proud of her every time Boundaoui expresses doubt, or her charismatic siblings who go door-to-door collecting signatures for her FOIA petitions, or her neighbours who send her off with some fresh bread even when they don’t comply with her requests. Together, they movingly demonstrate how resistance and solidarity can — and should — start at home.
First published in Vague Visages on April 25, 2018