From the November-December 2018 issue of News & Letters
The Feeling of Being Watched (2018) opens as filmmaker Assia Boundaoui recalls waking one night when she was 16 years old to see two men up on a utility pole outside her window working on the wires. In fear, she woke her mother, who said, “Oh, go back to sleep, dear. It’s probably the FBI.”
Over five years Boundaoui was determined to make a film to “dispel the paranoia with the truth” she felt and witnessed in the Arab-American community of Bridgeview, Ill. Ultimately she uncovered the scope and extent of the FBI’s “Operation Vulgar Betrayal,” which tracked Muslim organizations like the Mosque Foundation. The FBI believed they were laundering funds for Middle East terrorists. The FBI probe had actually begun in 1985, ramped up in the late 1990s, and continues to this day. In all this time, no one was indicted for the alleged crimes.
Boundaoui interviewed hundreds of her neighbors, often meeting with a refusal to talk. She filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for FBI documents and was told it would take five years to process it. She sued the FBI for faster release and—amazingly—won her case. She continues to receive 3,500 documents per month.
However, 70% of the documents are redacted (information is whited out), so her team is using algorithms to help interpret them. They also gathered 400 privacy waivers from individuals seeking their own files, but not one has yet been received.
Making the film empowered Boundaoui and the community: personal experiences of fear and paranoia became collective and empowering. Also empowering was learning the history of “investigations” of communities of color. A series of graphic timelines describes the 1917 investigations of Black Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II and COINTELPRO targeting the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers in the 1960s. Why? Not to prevent terrorism or crimes, but to control and destroy activist communities of color.
Boundaoui’s family and their neighbors had immigrated to the U.S. to live in freedom. “In America, there are laws. You have the right to know when they are violating your rights,” she said.
The film will be shown in Arab-American communities nationwide and on public television.
—Susan Van Gelder