By Valerie Milano
Beverly Hills, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/11/19 PBS – POV hosted a panel to discuss “The Feeling of Being Watched” at the Summer TCA Press Tours taking place on Monday, July 29th, 2019 at the Beverly Hilton. Present were Justine Nagan, Executive Producer of POV and Executive Director for its producing company, American Documentary; filmmaker Assia Boundaoui; her sister, film subject, and civil rights attorney, Iman Boundaoui; and Christina Abraham, civil rights attorney, film subject, and co executive producer for “The Feeling of Being Watched.” Justine Nagan’s colleagues, Keisha Salmon and Isaac Park, were in the audience.
“The Feeling of Being Watched” follows the experiences of an Arab-American community in Bridgeview, Illinois, as they discover one of the largest counterterrorism investigations ever conducted in the U.S. before 9/11. It’s a deeply personal film by director Assia Boundaoui. Assia grew up within this community, and her film intricately navigates the political and personal impact of surveillance.
“The Feeling of Being Watched” exposes the heart of xenophobia and discrimination in the U.S., raising crucial questions about our government’s systems of surveillance and the imbalance of power that comes with them. Yet there is also power in giving communities the ability to tell their own stories and the tools to continue to do so. Assia’s film is an important look into the unsettling truth of our governing systems, and the real impact on the individuals they affect.
Assia’s background is as a journalist, and it was a five-year-long journey to make this film. “We had all this paranoia in the neighborhood. People didn’t trust each other,” she said.
“We were constantly censoring ourselves. So I wanted to trace a line back from the effects to the cause. Why are we all operating this way? Why are we acting this way?”
When Assia was only 13 years old, her father passed away. At his funeral, the community raised $200,000 within an hour and paid off her family’s mortgage that very day so they could stay in the community. But this generous outpouring of support was viewed by the FBI as possible criminal activity!
Assia herself used investigative tools, the Freedom of Information Act being one of the primary ones. Naturally, this put her and her team under even closer surveillance. At one point, her Google Drive was hacked by government attackers–and then the FBI showed up (illegally) at her mother’s house!
“Operation Vulgar Betrayal” [the FBI code name for the surveillance of Assia’s community] took place before 9/11. Did things change and get more intense after 9/11?
In the early ’90s there was a shift in the intelligence community from the Cold War era and seeing communism as a national security threat to seeing Islamic radicalization or terrorism as a threat. And that is when immigrant Muslim communities and their institutions in the U.S. start being watched.
As Assia pointed out, there’s a long history of the FBI looking at communities of color that are active as national security risks. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were the subjects of intense surveillance, as were Japanese Americans who were later interned.
“So when we talk about surveillance as a risk for communities of color, we’re not just worried about our privacy. We’re worried about our livelihoods. We’re worried about our lives. The stakes are so much higher,” concluded Assia.
When you’re told you don’t belong enough, you start to believe it. So why be civically engaged if you see the government looking at you as an other? Surveillance is dangerous to the identity of self.
And none of this is new. This has happened to every single immigrant group that has ever come to America. You can look to the McCarthy era. So how can this be stopped?
Legal challenges may be one way to do it. The Freedom of Information Act was central to Assia’s investigation.
“It’s our job, as the citizens of this country, to keep our government in check,” insisted Christina Abraham. Citizen undersight is the opposite of government oversight! “And it’s saying, ‘We see you too,'” said Assia Boundaoui.
Surveillance gets its power from secrecy. When you bust the secrecy, it changes the dynamic and puts everything in line with the Constitution.
Anything that threatens the Constitution or the fundamental freedoms it guarantees should be challenged by everybody. This may be the biggest takeaway of “The Feeling of Being Watched.”