The Feeling Of Being Watched


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Residents of the Arab-American neighborhood of Bridgeview, IL have been under FBI surveillance for decades. From The Feeling Of Being Watched
"This is Boundaoui's second film and her style is straightforward and undecorative but, if anything, this adds weight to what she has to say." | Photo: Watched Film LLC

“I'm aware that this sounds crazy,” says journalist Assia Boundaoui, whose début documentary this is. She's right. So paranoid, in fact, that when one of her friends started reporting similar concerns, she and the neighbours who shared her experiences didn't realise that the poor young woman was actually developing schizophrenia. They were used to living in an absurd situation. Were they delusional themselves? The impressive body of evidence that Boundaoui has assembled suggests otherwise.

The thing about Boundaoui's quiet Chicago neighbourhood is that almost everybody who lives there is Muslim. It looks like the archetypal middle class suburb with neatly spaced houses, immaculate lawns and children playing in the streets. All the adults look out for them and are on friendly terms with one another. They could not more closely fit America's image of its ideal self - except that they have brown skin and the women wear headscarves. And this, Boundaoui thinks, is why they had APCs driving through their streets at night.

The operation was called Vulgar Betrayal. America has never been subtle about these things. Its existence is no longer a secret, with some FBI documents pertaining to it now available to the public. Although the attack on the Twin Towers was yet to happen, the FBI was already intent on surveillance of Muslim communities. It would take years for Boundaoui's investigation to uncover the facts but everybody in her neighbourhood suspected something was amiss, and this documentary is only partially about the events themselves - it's also about the process of her investigation and the psychological effect on the community of being treated in that way.

It's the latter theme that is the most interesting. Surveillance is often thought of as harmless and as something that security services have to do, for everybody's sake. Boundaoui's investigation suggests that in this case the surveillance itself - unprecedented in scale - emerged from a sort of paranoia, mostly on the part of one influential man. It also examines the way in which being watched first led people to doubt their own senses, then caused increasing feelings of alienation from a society they had initially regarded as their own. There are notable parallels with the anti-Communist investigations of the Fifties. The film will fascinate conspiracy theorists, with some of what we see involving techniques rarely discussed outside spy novels and the more paranoid corners of the internet. One is reminded of the excesses of MK Ultra- this is what an organisation can end up doing when nobody steps in to suggest that things are getting out of hand.

This is Boundaoui's second film and her style is straightforward and undecorative but, if anything, this adds weight to what she has to say. Its localised focus has a similar effect, inviting viewers to wonder where else this might be happening, and how often, and to whom.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2019
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Journalist Assia Boundaoui sets out to investigate long-brewing rumors that her quiet, predominantly Arab-American neighborhood was being monitored by the FBI — and in the process, she exposes a surveillance program on a scale no one could have imagined.

Director: Assia Boundaoui

Year: 2018

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US

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