The Feeling of Being Watched
By Assia Boundaoui
Women Make Movies, 2018
In both a personal and political quest, Assia uncovers surveillance on their mosque even further back to the 1990s. She depicts the mosque as a social support center, where congregants assist one another, as when her father passed from cancer and the mosque raised enough money to pay off their home. At other times, young girls giggle and take selfies and adults gather and relax. In contrast, FBI agent Robin Wright begins his surveillance operation “Vulgar Betrayal” and although he is later taken off the case after accusations of religious discrimination and sexual harassment, Wright makes a menacing reappearance. In her personal quest, Assia questions her own self censorship and her desire to be accepted outside of her community as the line between paranoia and the FBI reality becomes blurry. Her narrative places the discrimination against the Arab American community in the historical context of damaging surveillance of the American Indian Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Internment of Japanese Americans.
The story follows Assia as she collects door to door signatures to release the FBI reports despite the lingering fear of some of her neighbors. The entire neighborhood remembers being ‘visited,’ the euphemism for a FBI questioning. As Assia gets closer to uncovering the FBI reports, the suspense builds and she becomes more and more frightened. In one bizarre scene, the police rush into the neighborhood with heavy equipment including a tank and a helicopter when they claim there has been a bank robbery. They later refute the bank robbery but offer no counter explanation for this display of military power. Assia responds by organizing a joint community and FBI meeting where she stresses the importance of trust. The FBI agents assure her that they do not behave in this fashion and urge her to report any transgressions. Subsequently she calls a community meeting to inform her neighbors of their rights and how they can push back; as one young woman asserts “no more chai for the FBI.” Despite her fear and the creepy reappearance of Agent Robin Wright, Assia decides to go to court for the release of the papers on her community. While the judge sides with Assia and she publicly celebrates the successful FOIA request and our democracy, she has yet to receive the single files on any one person. While a viewer might begin watching “The Feeling of Being Watched” with skepticism, Assia’s very American grassroots efforts for justice and her earnest and humble camera will open eyes to the personal and public costs of misplaced distrust and racism.
This review appeared in Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.
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