AS I OPEN MY EYES
THURSDAY 27TH OCTOBER 6:00PM
Q+A with Baya Medhaffer (main star of the film), Devon Curtis (CAFF Advisory Board Member, Lecturer in African Politics and Emmanuel College Fellow) and Roxane Farmanfarmaian (Centre for the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa).
On the brink of Tunisia’s revolution in 2010, we experience life in Tunis through the eyes of Farah, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Farah’s family desires for her to become a doctor, but Farah is irresistibly drawn to music, her outlet for expressing herself. She has a zest for life, sings in a band and is discovering love and her city by night, all to the worry of her mother. As I Open My Eyes is an uplifting, endearing story of the Arab spring as experienced by a gentle teenage girl making sense of the pressures that surround her.
St Andrews Street
Cambridge CB2 3AP
Director: Leyla Bouzid
Running time: 102 mins
Language: Arabic/French with English subtitles
review by jonathan mitchell
It is generally reckoned that after any major event there is a necessary period of reflection before art catches up. The Arab Spring – which began in Tunisia in late 2010 – appears to be no exception. Leyla Bouzid’s As I Open My Eyes smoulders and tantalises, deftly weaving the personal and the political into a potent narrative mix.
18 year old student Farah (Baya Medhaffar) sings in a band – Joujma - with her boyfriend Borhène (Montassar Ayari). Their late night liaisons cause friction with her mother who is warned by her ex-husband that Farah is hanging with a bad crowd, where drink, politics and being monitored by the police may all be involved. Venting her frustrations, she picks Farah up from band practice and drives insanely along the motorway until Farah is forced to say she will mend her ways. Returning home, Farah expresses her frustration by locking her mother in her bedroom before fleeing to perform a gig.
Joujma’s songs become increasingly political and critical of the Tunisian regime. Lyrics such as “my country…land of dust…your gates are closed and bring misfortune…the starving are eating insults whilst your dogs’ teeth are made of gold” leave little room for ambiguity. This shift in the band’s direction causes internal friction, with a conflict between music and the political message. This tension also affects Farah and Borhène’s relationship as they argue at a party, before she sees him with another woman. She takes her revenge at a later gig, reading out the love poem he wrote for her, as the lights literally go out on the concert. Band member Ali is accused by Borhène of being an undercover police officer. Farah walks the streets of Tunis in a state of abject paranoia. Her mother tries to persuade Farah to leave Tunis but she vanishes at the bus station.
Reporting her disappearance to the police, she is forced to bribe officials to gain information. We see Farah being physically and mentally abused under interrogation, threatened with rape and incarceration if she doesn’t stop singing. Terrified by her ordeal, Farah retreats to the family home but also within herself, unable to process what has happened. Slowly her mother coaxes Farah out of her shell, and the film closes with their singing lyrics back to each other that speak of hope for the future. Farah’s acts of personal resistance are to be repeated many times over as the Arab Spring catches fire over the coming months.
As I Open My Eyes has a lightness of touch in dealing with the multiple ways in which the personal becomes political. Performances are all top-rate but Baya Medhaffar lights up every scene with a fiery intensity. The film’s score by Iraqi-British oud master Khayam Allami underpins the narrative in subtle but significant ways. The hand-held camerawork gives immediacy and a freewheeling documentary feel to the events portrayed on screen. The sense of young people caught up in major events is reminiscent of Olivier Assayas’ recent Something in the Air. But the fusion of intensity and warmth, for me, brings to mind Bouzid’s fellow Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche – Couscous, Blue is the Warmest Colour – which can only be high praise indeed.