“With the country’s problems, people lose their mind; in their minds castles are being built”, sings 18-year-old Farah (Baya Medhaffar) in her Tunisian band in the town of Gafsa. She vents her love, anger and rebellion through music, just like many people around the world. Sadly her country is not very tolerant of dissenting voices, particularly coming from a woman and where the establishment is often the subject of criticism.
The film takes place in the summer of 2010, shortly before the Arab Spring – known as Jasmine revolution in Tunisia – in the same year. The film illustrates the strict censorship, sexism and hardly veiled hierarchic forces and oppressive mechanisms that rule a country often perceived as vaguely progressive and liberal. Farah smokes, drinks and sings, in a clear affront to the regime. She deftly describes the country “in a state of inebriation”, and sings out that “heads are exploding from torpidity”. The young singer is not slamming alcohol consumption; she is instead denouncing the false sense of freedom that seems to intoxicate the entire country.
As I Open my Eyes is a very feminine look at the struggle that female continue to face in not-so-open and modern Arab nation. The film is directed by a woman and debutante filmmaker (Leyla Bouazid), and Farah’s mother Hayet is performed by Ghalia Benali. Hayet reacts with extreme rage upon finding out that her daughter is singing bars, and even stops talking to her. At first, she comes across as very conservative and intolerant, but it in reality she is trying to protect her daughter from a similar fate she encountered in her youth. The maternal bond is suddenly rekindled. Benali was a very good choice for the mother’s role – she’s a songwriter, singer, dancer and visual artist herself, of Tunisian background, born in Brussels, and who often performs in the Arab world. She is a good actress with a very strong facial features, reminiscent of Brazilian veteran Sônia Braga.
Both Medhaffar and Benali are superb, and the film is riveting and convincing as an epitome of the female struggles that pass from generation to generation. Farah has to face a terrible predicament, and yet the film never hints that the Jasmine Revolution improved her life and the prospect for women in Tunisia. In fact, the film ends before the political turmoil, leaving it for audiences to decide what happened to Farah, and whether she recovered from the ordeal to become a an artists, a singer, a woman and a revolutionary.
In addition to the good acting, Medhaffar is also a very good singer. The songs are powerful and vibrant, with an Arab rhythm, some electro beats and even a twang of punk.
As I Open my Eyes won the BNL People’s Choice Award at the Venice Film festival last year. It will be theatrically released in the US next week, on August 30th. European screenings are likely to follow soon – just click here in order to find out more.
You can watch the film trailer below: