One of the most disturbing moments in “The Feeling of Being Watched” is one of its most seemingly benign. After a seriousness of intent and journalistic rigor is made clear during the film’s first 15 minutes, director Assia Boundaoui breaks into say, “I should mention at this point that I’m a journalist with a master’s degree and experience in public radio,” an assertion of credentials that’s unusual and feels unnecessary, but clearly is to her, perhaps compelled to announce them because she feels as a Muslim-American her word may not be enough. While there is plenty of talk about paranoia in “The Feeling of Being Watched,” as Boundaoui pulls back the curtain on how her childhood community of Bridgeview, Illinois has been under FBI surveillance for decades, it is how this unspoken unease is expressed that makes the film most haunting, and whether the filmmaker intended for it or not, makes for essential viewing.
Boundaoui was 12 when she first became conscious that those parked cars in her neighborhood that always seemed to be there didn’t belong to anyone on her block, learning that two of her friends had fathers that were under investigation for money laundering, with the FBI operating under the assumption that donations to the Mosque Foundation were being funneled to terrorist organizations such as the Palestinian group Hamas. However, the FBI didn’t only target the two men as Boundaoui learns through Freedom of Information Act requests, but rather had their eyes and ears on virtually the entire community starting in 1996 as part of Operation Vulgar Betrayal (a name that suggests that the G-Men may not be aware of irony), learning that there’s over 33,000 pages of documentation alone regarding her family, whose patriarch died shortly after she moved into the neighborhood with her mother Rabia and her four siblings.
Returning home with a giant chip on her shoulder, Boundaoui leaves no doubt about how she feels about this invasion of privacy and her politics in general, rallying the community to sign privacy waivers to learn just how deep the FBI’s penetration into the Arab-American enclave and wearing a Colin Kaepnernick jersey as she flips through old photo albums to reread her past. Including moments that overtly reveal her insecurities born out desiring acceptance as an American, such as when she laments after an interview with an FBI agent who at one time worked on Operation Vulgar Betrayal that she’s too concerned with being liked to ask tough questions, Boundaoui shows in compelling fashion how she’s been shaped by paranoia, but this comes out in likely unconscious ways as well, drawing conclusions from conversations that you actually see or hear on screen that may have less meaning to them than she makes them out to be and often putting a fine point on things that may be more nuanced than she would probably accept.
The film is so confessional that it isn’t a reach to think it would work just fine as a “This American Life” segment if one turned the screen to black, but while 24-hour surveillance isn’t what Boundaoui has in mind, she demonstrates how important it is for Muslim-American families to be seen, engaged in raucous, playful conversations around dinner that are no different than anyone else in Cook County. In fact, Boundaoui’s discovery that the qualities that define the Muslim-American community, such as philanthropy and extraordinarily close ties, are interpreted by the FBI as signs of illegal conspiracy speaks to how valuable what she accomplishes here is, uniquely capturing the chasm between how Muslim-Americans are perceived and how they really are and shedding light on flagrant violations of the Fourth Amendment that have occurred because of that gap. Justifiably angry, Boundaoui has reconfigured that energy into a provocative and galvanizing film about an experience that may have shaken her confidence, yet offers some degree of comfort in showing how journalists like her are keeping a watchful eye.