“It’s probably just the FBI, go back to sleep,” a bleary-eyed mom reassures her antsy daughter near the beginning of “The Feeling of Being Watched,” responding to some indeterminate hubbub in the quiet suburbia outside. She says it with a weary shrug, as if she were describing hard rain on the roof or a raccoon going through the garbage — for Arab-American filmmaker Assia Boundaoui and her family, the FBI’s presence on their unremarkable, mostly Muslim-populated Chicago street has become an equivalently banal distraction over more than 20 years. But what are the feds looking for, and after years of seemingly fruitless surveillance, how is their continued scrutiny and racial targeting justified? Equal parts angry and anxious, Boundaoui’s smart, unsettling documentary functions both as a real-world conspiracy thriller and a personal reflection on the psychological strain of being made to feel an outsider in one’s own home.
There’s a timely quiver to “The Feeling of Being Watched” that will be felt by many Americans in the Trump era: Boundaoui’s film speaks pointedly to the current presidential administration and its fostering of a hostile environment towards Muslims — briefly dwelling on the copious Islamophobic abuse the director receives on Twitter. But Trump is a mere sideshow in an investigation that roots her community’s persecution in the 1990s, when Boundaoui’s Algerian émigré parents settled in the mostly Arab-American enclave of Bridgeview, Chicago. It’s a sociable, close-knit society, bound by the local mosque, which becomes the focus of an FBI surveillance project ominously titled Operation Vulgar Betrayal.
Fueled by the feds’ suspicions that the mosque was funneling monetary donations to Hamas or other terrorist organizations in the Middle East, the operation appears to be largely an exercise in smoke without fire. Arrests are made, a neighbor of the Boundaouis signs a confession under duress, yet it results in no convictions. As Boundaoui, herself a radio journalist, digs into the process behind the probe, compelling evidence for its launch is hard to come by: That a key agent was removed from the case in 1999 after allegations of religious discrimination and sexual harassment puts a further cloud on its credibility. Closed in 2000, the case was reopened in the wake of 9/11 — though whether that was down to new information or merely the anti-Muslim mood of the moment is hard to say.
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“The gray area between paranoia and the truth is a dangerous place,” notes Boundaoui. It’s a double-edged observation that she deftly applies at once to the arguable motivations of the FBI and the growing fretfulness she herself feels as she digs into the case. After making multiple Freedom of Information requests on behalf of the Bridgeview community — to make transparent the degree to which they were monitored, and to what end — the filmmaker appears to attract undue attention from the bureau, particularly once she takes the matter of her requests’ unusually slow processing to court. Is a substantial truth being withheld from her, or is the FBI merely enforcing the impression of surveillance in order to keep Boundaoui and her neighbors in line?
The ramifications of Boundaoui’s story are darkly troubling, yet “The Feeling of Being Watched” avoids feeling overly portentous. Foucaultian theory is nimbly balanced against journalistic hard graft, and leavened with warm, loose passages of domestic observation, revealing how the filmmaker’s family and neighbors shore up her cause. “You troublemaker, you!” one family friend yells after her, with wholly supportive affection. Certainly, Boundaoui isn’t afraid to speak truth to power: She’d just like to know exactly what that truth is. Shot and cut to match its maker’s no-nonsense drive, this tense, frightening film culminates in a more hopeful call to activist arms, finding as much security in ethnic and religious communities as others do suspicion.