Independent filmmaker Michael Rowley was questioned about his documentary work on the lives of young Palestinian men upon arriving at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Texas on Oct. 10, 2019.
Rowley told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he had flown to Tel Aviv, Israel, to attend a screening in the West Bank city of Ramallah for his debut documentary “Hurdle.” After landing back in the United States, the automated machines at U.S. Customs flagged his picture with a black “X,” requiring him to report to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent for further screening.
After sitting in a waiting room for 30 minutes, Rowley said an agent who did not identify himself directed him into an interview room for questioning. The plainclothes officer had the documentary’s website pulled up on a screen in view of Rowley and questioned him for about an hour before he was released.
The official asked him about why he was interested in Palestine, what the film was about and whether Israeli security forces had any issues with him making the documentary. “This U.S. official then asked me specific questions about the content of my documentary film, the characters in it and my methods for making the film,” Rowley said.
He added that he was specifically asked to identify one of the men who appeared in the film’s trailer and about why he had submitted endorsements for the visa applications of the documentary’s three main characters so they could attend the U.S. premiere.
He was also questioned about a past layover in Moscow, Russia, and whether he had a meeting with anyone while there.
Rowley was stopped for secondary screening again in March 2023 when returning from a trip to Denmark. He was questioned about his journalistic work, with an officer informing him that he was in their system “due to someone he had filmed with.”
Rowley told the Tracker that he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program in April 2023 after speaking with an attorney from the ACLU in an effort to prevent further security screenings.
“It is clear from the questions that CBP officials have asked me that I am being singled out for questioning and additional security screening due to my First Amendment-protected journalistic and filmmaking activities,” Rowley wrote in his complaint, which asks that he be removed from any watchlist that he may have been added to.
Rowley told the Tracker in November 2023 that during the two trips that he has taken since, he has not been stopped for additional security or questioning, but that his experiences had affected his reporting.
“I was in the early stages of working on a new documentary here in Dallas, which I decided to put on hiatus indefinitely because of the realization of being on a watchlist and for fear of bringing government attention to the characters in the film,” Rowley said. “It certainly had a chilling effect on me and my work.”