The inescapable heat of the Arab Spring during the early months of 2011 still looms large over the world. The dreams of the people at the heart of this conflict were built and shattered and then rebuilt in a matter of months, entire countries were caught in a dust devil of bloodshed, excitement, hope and confusion. New stories reported the most destructive of tales, stories of riots and armed forces clashing whilst dictators were ousted from their palaces and forced to face the whims of a nation. What had been lost in the media’s reportage, a lot of the time, were the personal stories, the way in which lives had been irrevocably changed, for better or for worse, since the uprising began. A film like As I Open My Eyes from Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid goes a long way towards bringing the earth-shattering events of that era into a much needed context by exploring the personal stories that really matter to us.
In Tunisia during 2010, whilst murmurings of discontent were beginning to turn into serious clamours for change (which would eventually culminate in the Jasmine Revolution), upper-middle class youngster Farah has just finished her schooling and seems to be on the road to medical school. Her new band, however, are beginning to gain traction in the local music community whilst their songs, co-written with the band’s guitarist and Farah’s boyfriend, are attracting the attention of the authorities. Farah is a girl who can sense her country is on the brink of change but her youthful naivety and stubborn nature is in stark contrast with the desperation of both government and society, leading her into a dangerous world of corruption and violence.
What immediately stands out in this debut film (not just for the director but for many of the actors as well) is the energy and intoxication of the musical sequences. Baya Medhaffar clearly adores the character of Farah and her energy and excitement is palpable. The decision to film all of the band’s scene’s live and with raw, one-take edge introduces a shock of reality that will surely bring many audience members back to their own youthful days of hedonism. Bouzid has to get these scenes right as they play off the quiet, almost too-familiar, quiet scenes that range between familiar disruption and puppy love, acting as that intense, impulsive need we all crave that allows us to detach from our relatively dull lives.
And get them right she does. The songs are original and feel like another character that we get to know as the film moves on and the scenes get tighter, rooms get smaller and the authorities close in. As the film stars a beautiful teenage girl, and deals with themes of oppression and sexual/social adventure, it may be compared to this years sleeper hit from Turkey, Mustang, but it isn’t quite as free-flowing and consistently resonant as Ergüven’s piece, flitting between aesthetic styles a little too often at times. Nevertheless, this is a debut film and the refinement and restraint shown at points is to be admired from such a young director, especially in the cold-blooded interrogation scene that will be hard to watch for many viewers.
As the film draws to its bittersweet conclusion, we find ourselves no longer wishing that Farah will make the career choice that will bring her happiness but instead find ourselves fearing for her safety, for her life and just hoping she can come out of this whole mess unscathed. It is a fine, heartfelt example of what so many young Tunisians must have felt, and must still feel, reminding us that there are children or teenagers in this country that miss out on youth, miss out on adventure and never truly get to follow their passions. This doesn’t stop them, however, from rising up, fighting to be a part of something and opening up a world further down the line where fear is no longer a roadblock. As long as they keep singing.
As I Open My Eyes screened as part of London’s Safar Film Festival, which celebrates contemporary Arab cinema. For more information, visit their website here: https://www.ica.org.uk/whats-on/season/safar-film-festival