Stories

IFFR Live: As I Open My Eyes

Yesterday IFFR had its kick off with the film by Leyla Bouzid. Today and Sunday another four films are screened before an audience worldwide.

Glimpses into Tunisia on the brink of revolution

A review of the first IFFR Live night by Young Film Critic Rowan El Shimi

Leyla Bouzid's debut feature film As I Open My Eyes screened in IFFR but also in 45 cinemas in 17 countries around Europe. Audiences in these cities were able to – simultaneously – immerse themselves in the Tunisian counter-culture and its youthful energy through the fictional band Joujma representing the voice and idealism of young Arabs all over the region.

Premiering in Venice and winning the Muhr Best Fiction Film award in Dubai, the film captures the energy of a fierce, oppressed yet hopeful generation of Tunisians – perhaps even Arab – finding their voice and embracing the alternative under the Benali regime just on the brink of the Jasmine Revolution eruption.

As I Open My Eyes sets off into the summer of 2010 in Tunis, as we follow 18 year old Farah (debutant actress Baya Medhaffer) the lead singer of indie radical band Joujma as they struggle to find rehearsal and performance spaces due to their politically critical lyrics in Tunis. But that's not Farah's only struggle, for she is a rebellious free spirit who throughout the film seeks to break free of her middle-class conservative environment set forth by her mother (singer Ghalia Benali).

Farah stands fearless and naive to knowing that the police are monitoring her and her band, while her mother, representing a generation who were once rebellious and now live by the constricted social and political rules, does everything in her power to stop her daughter from getting hurt.

 

The young embodiment of the Tunisian youthful anger is wild and daring. She sneaks around to make out and sleep with her bandmate and boyfriend who first encourages her wildness then goes on to stifle it when he feels she's stepped too far. Farah essentially faces pressures from all angles and keeps rejecting it throughout until she is caught by the authorities and they attempt to break her spirit.

“The energy was really inside all the choices of this film. Every artistic choice from the screenplay to the editing to the set. The film is reflecting the energy of the Tunisian youth and also the process of destroying this energy,” Bouzid told audiences in the Q&A following the film from the Rotterdam stage where was joined by the lead actresses and composer Khayam Allami.

While behind the scenes (except for once party scene where he makes a cameo appearance), another important protagonist is the film's composer Iraqi Syrian born musician and producer Khayam Allami who essentially creates a band from scratch. Allami and Bouzid worked closely together to develop a new youthful sound inspired by Tunisian folk music from the city of El Kef to the lyrics of Tunisan writer Ghassan Amami.

As such Medhaffer and the rest of the band are all first time actors and musicians, creating an experiment unique to the Arab region. It's a shame they aren't a real band who will release other albums beyond this film's original soundtrack also produced by Allami through his company Nawa Recordings.

“Since 2011 we've seen a lot of very powerful socially and politically engaged music come out of Tunisia,” Allami said in the Q&A when asked if the music scene had changed in Tunisia. “You can't put a barrier in front of something that is so powerful that just needs to get out. Especially with the way things are today for example technology wise.”

“Tunisian people are very disappointed with the revolution but at the same time they speak, they have so much energy and Tunis is really alive now with so many things happening,” Bouzid said. “We screened the film for the first time two weeks ago in Tunisia and it was a huge release that coincided with 5 years of the revolution and a lot of people were very happy with it saying they found out they really made a step forward.”

The film serves as a testimony to the energy and will for change that took over the Arab world in 2011 starting with Tunisia, and viewing it now as Tunisia along with most of the “Arab Spring” countries go through turmoil is both devastating yet serves as a hopeful reminder that change and revolution is an ongoing long-term process.