Journalist Assia Boundaoui Challenges the FBI’s Surveillance of Her Muslim American Community in Chicago, in ‘The Feeling of Being Watched,’ premiering Monday, October 14, 2019
A journalist investigates rumors of surveillance in her Muslim American neighborhood
In the Muslim American neighborhood outside of Chicago where journalist and filmmaker Assia Boundaoui grew up, most of her neighbors think they have been under surveillance for over a decade. While investigating their experiences, Assia uncovers tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents that prove her hometown was the subject of one of the largest counterterrorism investigations ever conducted in the U.S. before 9/11, code-named “Operation Vulgar Betrayal.”
Directed by Assia Boundaoui, The Feeling of Being Watched has its national broadcast debut on the PBS documentary series POV and pov.org on Monday, October 14 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series now in its 32nd season. The film was an official selection at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
With unprecedented access, The Feeling Of Being Watched weaves together the personal and the political as it follows the filmmaker’s examination of why her community—including her own family—fell under blanket government surveillance. Assia struggles to disrupt the government secrecy shrouding what happened and takes the FBI to federal court to compel them to make the records they collected about her community public. In the process, she confronts long-hidden truths about the FBI’s relationship to her community.
The film takes a personal storytelling approach, following Assia as she pieces together this secret FBI operation, while grappling with the effects of a lifetime of surveillance on herself and her family.
“I must have been sixteen, and I remember waking up at 3 a.m. and seeing a light outside. I got up, and I looked outside, and there were two men on a telephone pole, and they were doing something on the wires,” Assia recalls in a gripping opening scene.
“So I freaked out. I went across the hall to my Mom’s room. I woke her up, and I was like, ‘Mom, there are these two guys outside on the wire, and they’re installing something at 3 a.m. Maybe we should call the police.’ I was really upset and disturbed, and my Mom was like, ‘It’s okay, calm down, it’s not a big deal. It’s probably just the FBI. Go back to sleep.”
The film places viewers in the director’s shoes as she faces bureaucratic obstacles to collect public information, even encountering resistance from some of the community members. After realizing that her inquiries have put her on “the watch list,” Assia takes legal action to uncover the FBI’s motives for unwarranted surveillance of her family and her Muslim American neighbors.
“In this time of great political turbulence in the U.S., I stand committed to creating art that speaks truth to power and is rooted firmly in the principle of the public’s right to hold its government accountable,” she says.
“I hope that this film will herald a cultural shift in public awareness on issues of government surveillance and national security and contribute meaningfully to ending U.S. government policies that allow the unwarranted profiling of communities of color in America.”
In one harrowing scene, Assia’s mother Rabia gets an unexpected visit from an active FBI agent in Chicago, the same agent who launched “Operation Vulgar Betrayal” in the nineties.
“A man came knocking on the door and said his name is Bob,” Rabia tells Assia. “He asked, ‘Is your daughter making the documentary?’ I said yes. He gave me this number and said, ‘It’s between her and me.’”
“Throughout the film, the lens of surveillance is used as a metaphor for the various ways my community, and by extension Muslim American communities across the country, have been ‘seen,’ said the filmmaker. “By cinematically weaving the personal and the political— often polarized versions of the same story— I hope to capture a profound truth about the ‘War on Terror:’ its impact on our sense of self, our ability to create and connect, our right to dissent, and the effect it’s having on our collective democracy.”
“The Feeling of Being Watched gives us rare investigative insight into the way federal agencies are undermining the civil liberties of minority groups,” said Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director of POV/American Documentary. “Using her and her family’s personal accounts of being surveilled, Boundaoui draws chilling connections with other marginalized communities that have or continue to be unjustly scrutinized by the government.”
The Feeling of Being Watched takes a vérité and personal journey storytelling approach while artistically exploring how perspective functions in cinema. Throughout the film, the lens of surveillance is used as a metaphor for the various ways my community, and by extension Muslim-American communities across the country, have been “seen.” By cinematically weaving the personal and the political — often polarized versions of the same story — I hope to capture a profound truth about the “War on Terror”: its impact on our sense of self, our ability to create and connect, our right to dissent, and the impact it’s having on our collective democracy.
The German philosopher Hegel wrote that, "seeing comes before words," and in his writing insists on the impossibility of existence without recognition from the other. Surveillance is in its essence a way of seeing without recognizing, and its harmful effects are profound. Unwarranted surveillance transforms communities into places where neighbors distrust each other, people censor themselves, and everyone lives with an unhealthy dose of fear and paranoia. While surveillance is preconditioned on a great physical distance from the object of its gaze, this film gets intimately closer with the subjects of surveillance who have for so long been seen from afar. I hope this film will serve as a catalyst for radical change that is based on equality, mutual recognition and a way of seeing that is reciprocal.
Throughout The Feeling of Being Watched I use journalistic tools to investigate a complex political issue that is at the same time deeply personal to me. I believe strongly in the public’s right to know. I believe that our ability to hold government accountable is only as strong as our ability to compel government transparency. In this time of great political turbulence in the U.S., I stand committed to creating art that speaks truth to power and is rooted firmly in the principle of the public’s right to hold its government accountable. I hope that this film will herald a cultural shift in public awareness on issues of government surveillance and national security and contribute meaningfully to ending U.S. government policies that allow the unwarranted profiling of communities of color in America.
– Assia Boundaoui, Director, The Feeling of Being Watched
About the Filmmakers
Assia Boundaoui, Director/Producer
Assia Boundaoui is an Algerian American journalist and filmmaker based in Chicago. She has reported for BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, VICE, and CNN and was the recipient of a first place Mark of Excellence Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting in Yemen. She directed a short film on hijabi hair salons for the HBO LENNY docu-series, which premiered as an official selection of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Assia has a Masters degree in journalism from New York University and is fluent in Arabic. The Feeling Of Being Watched is her feature directorial debut.
Jessica Devaney, Producer
Jessica Devaney is a Brooklyn-based producer and the founder of Multitude Films. Recent films include The Feeling Of Being Watched (Tribeca 2018) and ROLL RED ROLL (Tribeca 2018). She also produced the Critic’s Choice nominated SPEED SISTERS (Hot Docs, 2015), which the New York Times called “subtly rebellious and defiantly optimistic” and OUT AGAIN (Outfest 2017) for Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology. Jessica’s directorial debut short, Love The Sinner (Tribeca 2017), screened at over 20 festivals and was supported by Sundance, The Harnisch Foundation, Fork Films, The Fledgling Fund, and Chicken & Egg Pictures. Additional credits include Call Her Ganda (Tribeca 2018), Naila & The Uprising (IDFA 2017), Peabody Award-winning MY NEIGHBOURHOOD (Tribeca 2012), Ridenhour Prize-winning Budrus (Berlin, Tribeca 2010). Jessica co-founded the Queer Producers Collective, produced Doc Society’s inaugural Queer Impact Producers Lab, and was Sundance Edit and Story Lab Fellow and a Women at Sundance Fellow.
Director: Assia Boundaoui
Producers: Assia Boundaoui, Jessica Devaney
Editor: Rabab Haj Yahya
Director of Photography: Shuling Yong
Illustrations: Molly Crabapple
Original Music: Angélica Negrón
Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White