It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you. Journalist-turned-filmmaker Assia Boundaoui knows this reality from the inside out, as do her neighbors in a section of Bridgeview, Illinois, that's home to 200 Muslim families. It's a peaceful paradigm of all-American suburbia, complete with Good Humor truck, roller rink and kids on their summer bikes — and, beginning in the mid-'90s, its defining features also included cars parked suspiciously outside houses for hours on end, intrusive visits from inquisitive FBI agents and the occasional appearance of men tampering with street wiring in the dark of night.
A quietly unsettling first-person doc, The Feeling of Being Watched proceeds as a head-on exploration of the gray area between fear and certainty. In search of the truth about the government's surveillance of Bridgeview — a project code-named Operation Vulgar Betrayal — Boundaoui has fashioned a thoughtful and deceptively straightforward chronicle. Her search begins with an interview with her mother at the kitchen table and culminates in a precedent-setting Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. A sense of hushed alarm builds, along with the complex political resonance of a deeply personal story.
As the director, whose parents emigrated from Algeria to the Chicago area, goes house to house to discuss the experience of being spied on for decades, not everyone is eager to stand up and be counted. That's particularly true among older residents who fled repressive regimes. But Boundaoui's gentle, spirited mother, Rabia, is forthcoming, recalling the years of constantly checking for electronic bugs in the house. In the filmmaker's voiceover and other women's recollections, there are fascinating revelations of self-censorship as a protective measure, a way of ensuring that you don't attract attention. Back when "the bomb" was the slang accolade of choice, was a woman overreacting or merely being sensible when she instructed her children never to use it, lest an eavesdropper think they were talking about an explosive device?
Boundaoui saw friends' families torn apart by the aptly named Vulgar Betrayal, an investigation that apparently viewed all mosques and Islamic organizations as fronts for terrorist activity, and which ultimately produced only a few indictments for white-collar crimes that even a former federal prosecutor admits are minor.
In an especially candid moment after her interview with that prosecutor, the director berates herself for not being tough enough with him. "I'm really nice, and it annoys me," she tells her brother, shedding light on a lifetime of needing to fit in. "I want them to like me," she admits. That desire is evident in the film itself, which makes an instructive and necessary point of depicting the normality and down-to-earth decency of Bridgeview's close-knit Arab American community. (The way that community came together for Boundaoui's family at a moment of devastating loss is extremely moving.)
But Boundaoui is tough. Her dogged efforts uncover tens of thousands of pages of documentation, and she doesn't back down when the government balks at providing them in a timely manner. The scenes of her poring over library microfilm, internet searches and heavily redacted FOIA documents might not be the stuff of high-octane action, but the stakes are unquestionably high, their intensity is deftly communicated, and the search is made visually interesting without getting fussy about it. Shuling Yong's camerawork is agile, and a couple of key excerpts of court transcripts use illustrations (by Molly Crabapple) and voice actors to good effect. Elsewhere, Angélica Negrón's economical score enhances the sense of creeping anxiety.
There's also sheer creepiness in this story, which includes a snippet of Boundaoui's phone conversation with a disgraced FBI agent who resurfaces in Bridgeview and insists — in truly chilling, not to mention ungrammatical, fashion — that "this is between you and I."
The chilling effect of a life under surveillance is at the heart of the film. As it pieces together the timeline of events in the director's Chicago suburb and beyond, The Feeling of Being Watched takes shape as an incisive inquiry. Examining the idea of paranoia as an engineered reaction, a tool of control that inhibits potential activism and self-expression, it's more than a lesson in living history. It's a powerful argument for how necessary it is to watch the watchers.
Production companies: Impact Partners, Multitude Films, Inverse Surveillance Project, Naked Edge Films, Ford Foundation, Chicken & Egg Pictures, and Catapult Film Fund
Writer-director: Assia Boundaoui
Producers: Jessica Devaney, Assia Boundaoui, Alex Bushe
Executive producers: Jim Butterworth, Daniel J. Chalfen, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Debra McLeod, Jay K. Sears, Bill Harnisch, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Barry W. Rashkover, Alexa Poletto, Michael D. Mann, Vijay Dewan
Director of photography: Shuling Yong
Editor: Rabab Haj Yahya
Composer: Angélica Negrón