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In the Arab-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 counter terrorism investigations ever conducted in the U.S. before 9/11, code-named “Operation Vulgar Betrayal.”
With unprecedented access, The Feeling of Being Watched weaves 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 Feeling of Being Watched follows Assia as she pieces together this secret FBI operation, while grappling with the effects of a lifetime of surveillance on herself and her family.
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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.
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Assia Boundaoui is an Algerian-American journalist and filmmaker based in Chicago. She has reported for the BBC, NPR, PRI, Al Jazeera, VICE, and CNN. Her debut short film about hijabi hair salons for the HBO LENNY documentary series premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Her feature length debut The Feeling of Being Watched, a documentary investigating a decade of FBI surveillance in Assia’s Muslim-American community, had its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. She is currently a fellow with the Co-Creation Studio at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, where she is iterating her most recent work, the Inverse Surveillance Project. Assia has a Masters degree in journalism from New York University and is fluent in Arabic.