Assia Boundaoui’s gripping and frightening documentary “The Feeling of Being Watched” is probably the only movie in recent years to invoke Foucault when talking about FBI counterterrorism surveillance. But it shouldn’t be the last. Having its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, the movie shows what happens to people once they feel they have lost control of their lives (something also explored in another festival offering, Cynthia Lowen’s online harassment documentary “Netizens”). But it’s also a testament to the strength found in fighting back against shadowy threats.
The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Boundaoui grew up in a tight-knit Muslim community in Bridgeview, Illinois. As shown in her movie, it’s a modest and low-slung bungalow neighborhood just southeast of Chicago where all the cars seem to be minivans, kids ride bikes, and every older person is referred to as “auntie” or “uncle,” regardless of blood relation. Starting in the 1990s, when Boundaoui was still a child, her family’s mosque was targeted by the FBI in something they termed Operation Vulgar Betrayal. The agency was investigating whether the mosque’s foundation was taking donations meant for charitable relief in the Middle East and funneling them to terrorist groups like Hamas. A father of one of her friends was investigated and ultimately left the country. An upstairs neighbor was arrested in Israel and signed a confession after torture, only to be later found not guilty.
There were ultimately no convictions. As Boundaoui presents it, the entire operation could well have been a fishing operation based on little more than a mosque sending money to the Middle East. One of the FBI agents handling the investigation with a little too much enthusiasm was accused of religious discrimination and ultimately reassigned. But the fear remained. As Boundaoui relates in this riveting first-person narrative told in a measure public-radio cadence (she’s a radio journalist), the effect was traumatizing in a way that made people in her neighborhood just want to keep their heads down. “A lot of us,” she says, “have stories about being watched but scared to talk.” In large part, “The Feeling of Being Watched” is the story of Boundaoui pushing herself to stop feeling afraid. Although the portrait presented is that of a tight and loving family—Boundaoui’s deeply loyal mother has a particularly spunky spark—the filmmaker ruminates on hiding her own identity by eagerly trying to blend in, keeping a low profile, and trying to not speak Arabic too loudly in public.
As with many other vulnerable communities, that reluctance to fight back has been gutted by the election of Donald Trump, the shadow lurking behind so many of today’s nonfiction movies. After establishing the targeting of her Bridgeview community, Boundaoui turns journalist-activist. She launches a flurry of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to find out just how closely the government had been watching her family and neighbors. Once the flood of heavily redacted documents starts flowing in, Boundaoui’s measured but righteous indignation bends toward what she calls the gray “dangerous place” between paranoia and the truth.
But Boundaoui had already arrived at the dangerous place. The legacy of surveillance leaves many like her frightened of raising their profile; because if she and her community had already been targeted once on the basis of religious and ethnic profiling, they worry what might happen to somebody who speaks up. That’s the rationale, after all, for the Panopticon prison model that Boundaoui references, by way of Foucault—if people think they’re being watched at all times, even if they aren’t, they will act accordingly. That’s another way of describing totalitarianism on the cheap. “The Feeling of Being Watched” is a rattled but humane look at what that kind of life is like. [B+]