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The Feeling of Being Watched: Discussion Guide

Discussion Prompts

Immediately after the film, you may want to give people a few quiet moments to reflect on what they have seen or pose a general question (examples below) and give people some time to themselves to jot down or think about their answers before opening the discussion:

  • Why do you think the film is named The Feeling of Being Watched?
  • What did you learn from this film? Did you gain a new insight?
  • Describe a moment or scene in the film that you found particularly disturbing or moving. What was it about that scene that was especially compelling for you?
  • Did anything in the film surprise you? Was anything familiar?
  • If you could ask anyone in the film a single question, whom would you ask and what would you want to know?

The impact of surveillance on mental health and community bonds

Assia explains that “most people in the neighborhood have stories but are afraid to talk out loud about it”. Why do you think that people don’t want to speak out about being targeted by the government? What would be a benefit of talking out loud about what has been happening in their community?

“The line between what’s real and what’s not is really blurry in the place that I grew up,” says the narrator. What do you think she means by this statement? How might this impact the mental health of people living in this community?

Assia recalls a story of a friend who used to complain about being followed when she was growing up. Her friend was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. What might be some of the challenges of discerning between a serious mental illness and the everyday experiences of living in a surveilled community?

At a meeting, one doubtful community member comments that “it could be likely that someone is impersonating the FBI”. Why do you think the community differs in their belief or lack of belief in the fact that the FBI is surveilling them? Why do you think it might be hard for the community to come to terms with this?

Assia explains the concept of the panopticon prison. Through this design, “paranoia becomes as effective a tool as actual surveillance,” she says. Do you think paranoia has informed the behaviors and mindset of the community in Bridgeview, Illinois? How? In the film, can you distinguish between what is the result of paranoia and what is real? What does this suggest to you about the impact of constant surveillance?

Based on how the FBI has treated communities of color, Assia suggests that perhaps the FBI wanted to instill paranoia. She suggests paranoia could be a tactic in and of itself. Why would the FBI try to instill paranoia? What could a possible benefit be for the FBI if they instilled paranoia within the Muslim community?

Speaking out

After attending her first community leadership meeting with law enforcement, Assia feels she is being treated like an unwanted nuisance by the community leadership, even though, in her opinion, she is only doing work to help her community. Have you ever had experiences where you felt that you were being ostracized or unappreciated because you were doing something new or controversial? Reflect on this experience and share with the group.

In a radio interview Assia explains how her community didn’t think they could go up against the government and win. Can you think of other examples in history when citizens have held the government accountable? Does Bridgeview’s story make you feel that you could take a stand if the government was involved in acts that were harming your community? Why or why not? What would be your reservations or motivations?

The narrator details a history of citizen groups—mostly communities of color—speaking out and then receiving government surveillance. She shares that we have seen a pattern of surveillance of outspoken communities of color over time. Why might this pattern continue to occur? Do you imagine movements and groups from different generations are communicating about surveillance? What might be barriers to communication between groups about surveillance?

What are the risks involved in speaking out or even researching sensitive topics? Assia’s family becomes targeted after she starts to investigate Operation Vulgar Betrayal. How did you feel when FBI agent Robert Wright visited Assia’s mother, or when Assia spoke with him on the phone? What did you notice about his visit and/or their conversation?

Being watched takes away freedom

One of Assia’s younger neighbors explains the emotional impact that surveillance has had on her. “You feel like someone’s just invading your life, you know? I have a feeling that there is a camera, there is something watching. You don’t feel free. You don’t feel safe.” In what ways might one argue that surveillance protects freedom and safety? Of whom? In what ways have you observed surveillance as an attack on the Bridgeview community’s freedom and safety? Have you ever felt targeted as someone or as a community who has been watched more than the others around you? Did you feel free? Did you feel safe?

The government does not surveil everyone in the same way that they surveilled the Bridgeview community and other Muslim communities under Operation Vulgar Betrayal. Why is it significant who is surveilled? Why is it significant how they are surveilled?

Even in their own houses, Bridgeview residents feel constrained. “I don’t remember how it felt to feel free in my home,” says one community member. Do you feel a different sense of your own freedom in public vs. private spaces? How do you imagine it might feel to not feel free inside of your house?

The role of government

Allison Hantschel , an Illinois journalist who researched Operation Vulgar Betrayal, explained in a conversation with Assia that when she approached government officials “time and again the actual legal argument that was presented was ‘to even discuss the reasons for doing what we are doing would violate national security.’” This meant that Hantschel never received explanations surrounding Operation Vulgar Betrayal. Do you think that a government should be able to keep information from citizens and journalists? What do you think could be the benefits of withholding information? Who might be negatively impacted by this practice? How was Assia and her community negatively impacted by the withholding of an explanation or rationale for surveillance?

While journalist Allison Hantschel is unable to obtain any information from the FBI about the reason for Operation Vulgar Betrayal, Assia is able to use her FOIA rights to ultimately obtain information about the operation. In these instances, it seems that the government is designed to both withhold information and remain transparent. Can you recall other circumstances where your government’s system seems designed to withhold information or to take away a citizen’s ability to control information? Can you recall instances where citizens were able to exercise rights to hold their government accountable?

“Once you’re labeled a terrorist, that red paint never really comes off,” says the narrator as she explains how a trusted Bridgeview community member, Muhammad Salah, was falsely accused of terrorism. Although the conviction was overturned, this deeply impacted him for the rest of his life. Do you know someone in your community who has been labeled by the government, for example, as a terrorist or a political agitator? How did this impact their life? What changed? Because such nullified convictions can render a person unemployable, fracture a family, or cause severe mental health issues as they did in the film, do you think the government has a responsibility to do more exhaustive investigating before convicting and altering a person’s life? Why or why not?

At a community meeting, Assia says, “I believe strongly that a healthy relationship between law enforcement, government and our community needs to be one that’s predicated on trust and transparency.” Do you feel a relationship of trust and transparency with your government? Why or why not? Compare this feeling of trust and transparency to that in other countries. What is different?

Stereotyping, Muslim identity and culture

The narrator explains how growing up she witnessed “how Arabs and Muslims were cast as radical, backwards, violent villains.” Can you reflect on any media where you’ve witnessed Arabs and Muslims being portrayed in this way? Do you think these have portrayals impacted how you see Arabs and Muslims?

When discussing her identity as a Muslim American, Assia says that “I am constantly juggling within me two conflicting gazes: how I see myself and how I see myself through the eyes of others.” How did you notice this conflict manifesting within Assia? Although she is reflecting on her unique experience as a Muslim American woman, do you find anything in this statement relatable? In what ways do you negotiate how you see yourself and how others see you?

Assia says that she wants to be tougher and push her interviewees but admits that she “wants them to like her and see her as a good Muslim girl who speaks good English.” What is the tension that you notice in these two opposing desires? Assia is taking on the challenge of recasting how a Muslim behaves in society. At the same time as she is taking a very radical stance against the FBI. What kinds of challenges do you think she will face tackling both at the same time?

Sometimes when a dominant culture in power controls law enforcement, they can impose their sense of what is culturally normative and what is suspicious. Assia explains how “the things that they found suspicious of us are actually the most important characteristics of our community. We’re very philanthropic and we’re connected to each other.” Share some examples of other cultural practices that you have seen targeted in your community or your country? How do you think this might change if different people held power?

Personal data and the right to freedom

The sheer amount of records collected on Assia’s community totaled around 33,000 pages. What do you think are the ethics to consider when collecting this amount of data about people?

In a radio interview, Assia concludes that despite being watched by the FBI and having to sue to get access to the documents, “the incredible thing about this democracy is that you have the right to know and you can get the records of them violating your rights.” Do you agree with this statement? Assia had to jump through many hoops, including a lawsuit, to finally obtain these records that she has the right to obtain. Do you feel that this is democratic transparency? Why or why not? How might this process be different in other countries with other systems of government?

Watching the watchers

After FBI agent Robert Wright shows up at the Boundaoui home, the family begins setting up their own surveillance to be able to watch their surveyors. Why do you think they chose to do this? How do you think this made them feel? Has your family, school, workplace or community organization ever used their own surveillance? Why did they choose to use surveillance? How did it feel to use surveillance?

Assia feels that she can be helpful to her community and others by holding the government accountable. “Maybe the only thing I can do,” she explains, “is make sure the government is not invisible, that the systems of power are kept in check.” Why do you think she feels this is important?

What do you think the title of the film, The Feeling of Being Watched, means? To whom do you think the title pertains? Citizens, Muslims, Arabs, the government itself?

After Assia has obtained access to the FBI documents through FOIA and a lawsuit, she reflects on how she might change this system of surveillance. “Perhaps the only way to disrupt surveillance,” she contemplates, “is to make sure that those who do the watching are also being watched.” What impact do you think this could have?

Closing Questions

At the end of your discussion, to help people synthesize what they’ve experienced and move the focus from dialogue to action steps, you may want to choose one of these questions:

  • What did you learn from this film that you wish everyone knew? What would change if everyone knew it?
  • If you could require one person (or one group) to view this film, who would it be? What do you hope their main takeaway would be?
  • The story of The Feeling of Being Watched is important because ___________.
  • Complete this sentence: I am inspired by this film (or discussion) to __________.

Additional media literacy questions are available at: https://www.amdoc.org/engage/resources/media-literacy-questions-analyzing-pov-films/using-framework/