No. I’m not paranoid.
Public radio journalist Assia Boundaoui was awake at her mother’s home at three in the morning when she saw men on a telephone poll with bright lights working. She went across the hall to wake-up Rabia Boundaoui, unsure what to think and desperate to figure out what was happening. Her mother’s response was nonchalant: “Don’t worry. It’s probably just the FBI.” How could a statement so calmly damning not pique her interest to discover more? Next came stories from neighbors, her own recollections of friends’ fathers getting arrested, and the acknowledgment of a palpable paranoia suffocating her Bridgeview, Illinois hometown. Deciding this investigation benefited from a visual documentary format once its rabbit hole of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents opened, The Feeling of Being Watched was born.
While Boundaoui’s journey exposes the government’s wide-ranging surveillance operation on her community (the FBI believed the local Mosque Foundation was a front to funnel money to Hamas), it also puts a sinister face on its long-lasting effect. Between her mother learning to accept these agents’ presence as “normal” to the constant sense of fear that forced Bridgeview to police itself and alter its citizens’ identity due to legal activities being deemed suspicious enough to keep five hundred individual files amounting to thirty thousand pages about them, state-sanctioned Islamophobia has irrevocably damaged their lives. And as soon as someone dares to wonder why, the bureaucratic red tape comes out to stall, distract, and intimidate even more. Boundaoui spends years at great psychological cost just to reveal a doorway inside.
So don’t assume to find answers here. The disgraced FBI agent (Robert Wright) who turned their lives upside down prior to 9/11 (with zero “international terrorism” arrests) through his “Vulgar Betrayal” operation (a campaign re-opened after the World Trade Center towers fell) isn’t going to come clean on-camera. There won’t be any whistleblowers talking us through what happened, why it happened, and whether it was above board. The growing paranoia is going to follow Boundaoui wherever she goes too as coincidences start feeling way too personal and full of holes to simply be coincidences. But while that sounds defeating, her refusal to quit advocating for herself and her Muslim-American friends and family allows her battle on the streets and in the courtroom to become an immeasurably edifying experience.
The Feeling of Being Watched is like an introductory handbook: one that peels back the layers on our government’s activities to show how they willfully complicate our methods of keeping them in check. Because what does a constant federal presence mean to those visited by agents? What good is petitioning to have your name unredacted from surveillance files you have a right to see if the FBI can respond with their canned “national security” spiel in order to avoid inviting any extra scrutiny? Where’s the line between wanting to provide transparency to hopefully stop the harassment and finding yourself reacting in a way that feeds into the harassment’s goal? By volunteering to be a victim to these scare tactics, Boundaoui captures them for all to see.
That’s the only way to cut through the subterfuge and expose what’s happening via concrete evidence. Boundaoui runs straight into the fire to force the FBI’s hand. Think of it like a quarterback giving a hard count to watch how the defense reacts before adjusting with an audible. She sues the agency, speaks in town hall coalitions composed of law enforcement and her Muslim community’s leaders, and records everything to ensure nobody can backtrack on their company speak or accidental slips. How does the FBI combat those attacks? How are their methods here similar to those used on other groups? And how far are they willing to go to use their clout and resources to return their targets to the silence that reigned before Boundaoui began shaking trees?
I won’t go into details as far as those lengths to strong-arm and intimidate because it’s better to watch it unfolds. Boundaoui describes the helplessness succinctly when recalling someone she knew years ago that was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. The state of uncertainty clouding their judgment made it so this woman’s delusions appeared believable. No one thought to wonder if she needed support because what she imagined wasn’t too far from the truth they were living. So Boundaoui decides to turn the tables in a way that’s unique to America. If the government is going to surveil us, why don’t we surveil them? The information collected for this documentary therefore allows her to prove they were never crazy. It can also educate them about how to fight back.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.