Speak English. If you must speak Arabic in public, never do so with a raised voice. Dress American. Act American. Stay together in groups, seem as non-threatening as possible. If you see the strange suited men in their bulky black cars, ignore them, but tell us. If you wake in the night and see them fiddling with the telephone wires by the house, just go back to sleep. And whatever you do, don’t ever, ever use the word “bomb.” Consider it a swear word. Our safety depends on it.
Such were the lessons drilled into journalist Assia Boundaou by her mother when she was growing up in Bridgeview, Illinois, a small community a few miles outside Chicago that’s home to some 200 Muslim families. If not for the local mosque and smattering of hijabi, the town would be indistinguishable from the general sprawl of American middle class suburbia. And yet this small town was home to a sinister FBI investigation that harassed and intimated innocent citizens for decades. Convinced that the people of Bridgeview were harboring Islamic terrorists and funneling donations through charitable organizations to Hamas, the FBI began Operation Vulgar Betrayal (OVB). Within a few years they had collected over 30,000 documents worth of surveillance on this Muslim community, including Assia, her friends, her family, and her neighbors. And did they get for it? No terrorist convictions. No ties to Islamic terrorism.
And yet the harassment continued. Even after the founder of the program, FBI agent Robert Wright, was suspended over racial and sexual discrimination, OVB churned on, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Walking the streets of her childhood home, Boundaou can’t find anyone who wasn’t petrified of the government, of being spied upon, of being watched. She finds families torn apart by the paranoia, lives wrecked, and a community gripped in the throes of generational neurosis. And so sets the stage for Boundaou’s The Feeling of Being Watched, a documentary that charts her journey to discover the existence, extent, and damage of OVB to her community, to her family, and even to herself as a young Muslim woman in a country that views her as a terrorist. True to her roots as a journalism student at NYU, the film is more a piece of investigative reporting than some detached vérité exercise; it’s equal parts historical exposé, legal procedural, and personal confessional. Of these three, it works best as a procedural—we witness Boundaou’s herculean struggle with the Kafkaesque Justice Department to gain access to the files collected by the FBI, as is her right under the Freedom of Information Act. (As Boundaou explains, “One of the weirdest things about our country is that the government can violate our rights, but we have the right to know when they do it.”) The last act even shows her organize a grass roots movement to inform the people of Bridgeview about their rights and to encourage them to sign privacy wavers demanding their own OVB documents from the DOJ. Frank Capra would be proud.
And yet something doesn’t fully come together in The Feeling of Being Watched. That’s admittedly a terrible thing to say about such an earnest, heart-felt film seeking justice for a persecuted minority. But I think Boundaou’s ambitions outstripped her filmmaking prowess, but only by a little. The first third magnificently captures the feeling of nervous menace felt by the people of Bridgeview, yet all that gravity dissipates as soon as she starts sending information requests to the DOJ. A third act surprise confrontation by none other than Robert Wright is presented like a shattering, the-black-helicopters-are-coming twist. And it should be! The man who organized OVG showed up at Boundaou’s mom’s front door and asked about her daughter! He even inquired about the documentary! But the whole scene feels strangely detached. The magnitude of OVB and its implications for America as an embryonic Orwellian police state are staggering. And this documentary is indeed an excellent primer for these subjects. But it lacks the cohesive sense of urgency needed to make a true impact. I wait to see what Boundaou does next. I suspect few will see it coming.