As I Open My Eyes (À peine p’ouvre les yeux, Tunisia-France-Bel-UAE-Switz 2015)

The band in rehearsal

This Tunisian film is very good and I am surprised that it has not received UK distribution, only a festival screening. It’s interesting to see this film as part of an African film festival. Tunisia is part of the Maghreb and ‘North African Cinema’ but the links between North African and Sub-Saharan African cinemas is not as strong as they were in the 1970s-1990s as far as I can see. There is a strong link here, however, as the writer-director of the film Leyla Bouzid is the daughter of the writer and director Nouri Bouzid, one of the group of Tunisian filmmakers in the 1980s-90s making films which regularly featured in the Carthage Film Festival when the festival operated in tandem with Ouagadougou’s Pan-African festival.

Leyla Bouzid made this, her début feature, aged 29 just a few years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which ended 23 years of increasingly repressive government by President Ben Ali. In the Press Notes for the film, Leyla Bouzid says that she wanted to make a film to remind everyone of how the repression under Ben Ali worked. She suggests that though many documentaries were made during the revolutionary period, there weren’t any fictions. She wanted to make a film about how people lived during the time leading up to January 2011 so she set her film in the summer of 2010.

Borhène and Baya

Farah (Baya Medhaffar) is an 18 year-old from a middle-class Tunisian family. She has just matriculated from high school with outstanding results and her parents are expecting her to study medicine. But Farah is young, lively and a talented singer. She is more interested in music than medicine and she is the singer in a band led by Borhène (Montassar Ayari), her boyfriend. The band plays ‘political’ material in popular music styles and Farah visits bars where she is soon tempted to sing impromptu. This is a dangerous activity which she keeps from her parents, helped by the family maid Ahlem. But eventually her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) works out what is happening, fires the maid and terrifies Farah into promising to stop singing. But she can’t. She refuses to obey her mother and continues her work with the band. Meanwhile, her father is working as a manager at a phosphate mine in Gafsa in the South West of the country.

Baya and her mother, Hayet

I don’t want to spoil the narrative but singing is a dangerous business and the inevitable is likely to happen. There are elements of romance and ‘coming-of-age’ issues in the story and some generic ideas from music films, but at the centre is the struggle between mother and daughter. Why does Hayet fight so hard to stop her daughter singing? As a young female director, Leyla Bouzid, took the brave decision to shoot on the streets of Tunis in some of the roughest areas and in bars populated almost entirely by men. In one scene Hayet has to enter one such bar looking for Farah and Bouzid tells us how tense the atmosphere became and how the ‘extras’, who were genuine clients of the bar, stared in almost obscene ways at the actress as she had to repeat the scene. The film was shot by Sébastien Goepfert who had worked on a film for Leyla’s father and this was a film co-produced with four different national partners. Many of the Heads of Department in the crew were Europeans and for the crucial role of the music composer for the film Leyla Bouzid chose Khyam Allami, an Iraqi musician who is part of a band featuring members from across the Arab world. The music throughout the film is very good with Borhène playing what I took to be an oud with an electric pick-up alongside drums, guitar and synthesiser. Overall the approach to the music reminded me of the Egyptian film Microphone (2010).  Perhaps the most daring casting decision Bouzid took was to pair Baya Medhaffar with Ghalia Benali. Baya was chosen after a long search but Ghalia is a well-known singer of contemporary Arab music. Fortunately the two women hit it off quickly and worked very well together.

Baya visits parts of the city where it can be dangerous for young women

The fear of police surveillance is very real in the film and I should warn you that there is one very distressing (but necessary) sequence. The film is successful in demonstrating just how the police worked in Tunisia under Ben Ali. I hope that things have improved since 2011. I thought this was an excellent film in every way and I would certainly recommend it. Although it has not been released in the UK, it is available on a Region Free DVD from Trigon Films in Switzerland. It has been released in the US and is available on DVD and online. Thanks to Africa in Motion Film Festival for making this available.

Here is a US trailer:

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