As the Arab Spring started in Tunisia in 2010, filmmakers and amateurs immediately took to the streets and began filming demonstrations and a plethora of documentaries have flitted through film festivals and populated the Internet. Nearly five years later, fictional reenactments of the events leading to the Arab Spring have started to appear — and Leyla Bouzid’s feature-length debut “As I Opened My Eyes” is by far the best. Like so many of the finest portraits of real life political events, the director has cleverly kept the story small, while hinting at a much bigger picture.
A coming of age tale of a rebellious teenage girl set in the summer of 2010, “As I Open My Eyes” never directly addresses the Arab Spring or the call for the overthrow of the Tunisian president. Indeed, in many ways the story seems typical: it’s about a teenage girl who wants to break away from the rules of her parents, especially those set by her mother — she wants to go out, drink and play in her band.
But the film takes place in the rarely-depicted underbelly of Tunisia, a lively universe of private bars filled with singing and much camaraderie. The scene is filled with a mixture of hip outsiders and others just living on the fringe of a conservative Islamic society. The camera happily flits to the faces of the dispossessed as Farah (Baya Medhaffer) and her bandmates sing state of the nation songs. But given their liberal lifestyles and attitudes (for Tunisia at least), they also slip in a few protest tunes.
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Farah is a necessarily duplicitous character. She has to lie to her parents, especially her mother Hayet (singer Ghalia Ben Ali) about where she goes and what she does when she’s out at night. Her father works in another city and only comes home infrequently. He can’t get a transfer back from Tunis because he refuses to join “the party” (presumably Communist Russia, though it’s never fully addressed).
The film begins with Farah and her boyfriend Borhėne (Montassar Ayari) kissing in a bush, where a friend comes across them. The story is full of such confidence tricks, where characters and audience are duped at different times. The couple play in a band that would probably be a hit in Brooklyn. The sound fuses traditional Arab Mezwed with pop. The music has been composed by Iraqi Khyam Allami and the lyrics by Ghassem Amani; given how many diegetic songs there are in the film, audiences will either delight or get turned off depending on how much they like the band. But the ups and downs of their relationship are a different story.
However, the mother-daughter dynamic gradually emerges as the most important relationship in the film, as both find out facts about the other, and wind up equally blinded by believing in their own righteousness. That trajectory is packed with tension.
As Farah, first-timer Baya Medhaffer is a revelation, managing to combine a zest for life with teenage naiveté. Her strengths come to the fore in various confrontational scenes. It’s a difficult part to play, because the rebelliousness is also combined with her being an ace student, one with grades that are good enough for medical school — even though she, of course, wants to study musicology, much to her family’s chagrin.
Midway through, the film shifts to the month of Ramadan. This second section starts with a scene of workers fighting with their bosses over the failure to receive a bonus. It seems the intention is to show the greater problems taking place and why so many, from such a wide section of society, would rebel together to overthrow Ben Ali. Instead, it’s superfluous to the central protagonist’s story. Indeed, much of the narrative’s power stems her believe that the problems she is enduring are unique to her and not endemic of society’s problems, nor that so many would be willing to join her.
There are two fine stings in the tail that set up an exciting final act, where the film reaches its dramatic apex. Given the real events of December 2010 are known from the outset, the film still manages to find its way to a surprise finish. By then, Bouzid has joined the ranks Arab female filmmakers worth keeping tabs on.
“As I Open My Eyes” premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.