A filmmaker discovers one of the largest pre-9/11 FBI surveillance operations and reveals its impacts on her community.
Assia Boundaoui remembers waking up at 3am as a teenager to see two men installing something on a telephone pole outside her home.
Afraid, she went across the hall to wake her mother up.
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“It’s ok, calm down, it’s not a big deal,” Assia recalls her mother saying. “It’s probably just the FBI, go back to sleep.”
In the Arab-American neighbourhood outside Chicago where Assia grew up, most of her neighbours think they have been under surveillance for over a decade.
Assia remembers when her upstairs neighbour, who was known as a kind and trusted member of the community, was the first US citizen put on a “terrorist” watch list. He had travelled to Palestine in the 1990s to hand over thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid. There he was accused of supplying money to a “terrorist” organisation and was detained by Israeli forces, tortured and coerced into signing a confession. He was later acquitted.
Now Assia, a journalist, is digging into who or what has haunted her community for years, pushing family and friends to talk in hushed tones or censor themselves on the phone.
She eventually uncovers tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents that prove her hometown was the subject of one of the largest “counter-terrorism” investigations ever conducted in the US before 9/11, code-named “Operation Vulgar Betrayal”.
Trying to cut through the secrecy shrouding the operation, she takes the FBI to federal court to compel them to make the records they collected about her community public.
But as she gets closer to the truth, Assia notices that someone may be keeping a close eye on her, too.
The Feeling of Being Watched follows Assia as she pieces together a secret FBI operation while grappling with the effects of a lifetime of surveillance on herself and her family.
By Assia Boundaoui
The Feeling of Being Watched takes a verite and personal look at the various ways my community, and by extension Muslim-American communities across the country, have been “seen”. By weaving the personal and the political – often polarised 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 recognising and its harmful effects are profound.
Unwarranted surveillance transforms communities into places where neighbours 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 film, I 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 US, 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 US government policies that allow the unwarranted profiling of communities of colour in the US.