My background is in journalism and because of that, I approach stories, or I have for a very long time, approached stories from this very journalistic point of view, which is from this idea of objectivity. There are subjects and there are journalists, and those two things are separate and not connected. Even though my motivation to tell the story and to make The Feeling of Being Watched came because it was a personal experience and I feel personally traumatized, I’m using art to sort through it.
It took me two years to realize that I can’t make the film this way – with this journalistic distance that I’m burying the lead that my experience here, how I felt, and why I’m making this my action, my entire motivation for making this film is not a journalistic one. So, I changed my approach and realized I need to be in this, and I need to be honest about how I’m connected to this story and transparent about where I’m coming at it from. So, I started being in front of the camera and that informed everything. Instead of asking people questions from what I thought was an objective lens, I’m talking to them as someone who has a shared experience with hem and who believes them first and foremost. That changed the whole direction of the film. The first two years I was making it, it was about my closest friends, who both of their fathers were investigated and incarcerated in relation to surveillance. Both of them non terrorism related in the end, but the investigations themselves were about terrorism. Their fathers had gone and come back changed. It changed the entire dynamic of their families. And at a certain point they were getting more FBI visits than they had ever gotten before, and they thought it was related to the making of the film when they dropped out. So I had to think about how we were going to tell this story. How do I pivot? I had to focus on why it even happened, and it was also always talking about things that happened in the past. But I needed something to move the story in the present, and that was the process of trying to get the truth.
If you want to bust surveillance, you have to bust the secrecy. FBI surveillance gets its power from secrecy. Telling our stories openly and publicly is what’s going to keep us safe, and the fact that the film is out publicly protects us. That said I do think very strongly that there are times that you shouldn’t be sharing your story publicly and that has nothing to do with law enforcement, but with your own internal healing. I think you’re not ready to share your story publicly until the reaction to it doesn’t affect you. I didn’t know this until I finished my film. I fell into a very deep depression right after I finished the film and put it out in the world. We’re pushed as people of color to tell our own stories, and do so in a very personal way, and we unearth all of these wounds and we put them out in the light, and then that’s it. But that’s not actually enough for the traumatized person. You need to be able to heal those wounds, too. Personal films are really difficult. You need to be far away enough from the thing that you can understand the narrative arc and what the story even is but so up close to it that you can express your innermost feelings. It’s hard to have both of these gazes at the same time.
A lot of storytelling, from the outside looking in, focuses on the pain of people. But storytelling from the inside looking out, because you know very intimately what the suffering is like, you’re not really interested in asking more questions about that. You’re interested in understanding the root of the suffering and where it comes from. Exploring that is a mechanism for healing. The primary goal is to create a reflection of yourself in your own community that people haven’t seen before. There’s a lot of pressure on us to always make stories to create empathy and humanize us. I’m kind of disgusted by that language. If I need to make an entire film for you to see me as a human, we have a fucking problem from the start. The starting point should be I recognize you as a human, and you recognize me as a human. OK, Go!
I think if we also understood history and the relationship of how the FBI has profiled and surveilled people of color, specifically, that they’ve used similar tactics in all of these communities, that we can see see a real solidarity in these things and feel empowered too. What were the tactics that the Black Panthers used to stay sane? When there’s a car parked in front of your house with a white man in it in a neighborhood where there aren’t white people walking around, all day, this overt surveillance is for you to see them. It’s to make you paranoid, because just the idea that there might be surveillance changes people’s behavior. Creating this paranoia in the community is a tactic they used 70 years ago, successfully. So, if we understood those relationships then we can think about how we build power across communities, how we learn from the history of Black people in this country to understand how that relates to immigrant Muslim communities right now. All of these things are related. There is power in learning these survival and resistance tactics. We can learn a lot from each other.
Surveillance really counts on the fact that it’s this one way gaze, but if you disrupt it maybe you can disrupt surveillance entirely. Artistic interventions, storytelling interventions, political and organizing interventions can help us reclaim our power. All of this surveillance and injustice is meant to alienate you to make you feel like you can’t do anything about it.