Art, Youth, and Protest in the Arab Spring

#42:  As I Open My Eyes (2015/In Tunisian Arabic and French, with English Subtitles)
Director:  Leyla Bouzid
DVD Release Date:  January 10, 2017/KINO LORBER

What happens when you sing protest music in a country that doesn’t tolerate protest?  If only we could ask Fela Kuti, the the Nigerian singer who was beaten and arrested, and whose mother was murdered by the Nigerian military; or Miriam Makeba, who spent decades in exile from her native South Africa; or Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer who was tortured and then executed under the Pinochet regime.  They’re all gone, but we can still learn from the living example of three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian all-female punk band, who were arrested after performing an anti-Putin song inside a Moscow cathedral in 2012.

Authoritarians have never much appreciated artistic freedom, but Farah (Baya Medhaffer) is 18 and, like many teenagers, feels invincible.  It’s the summer of 2010 and the Tunisian Revolution (aka the Jasmine Revolution) is brewing.  The adults around Farah are guarded and careful, but Farah will not be reigned in.  She’s the lead singer of a protest rock group and in love with another band member; lanky, charismatic Borhene (Montessar Ayari).  When Farah’s mother frets over her and tries to control her, Farah insists, “Everyone is afraid for no reason.”

Director Leyla Bouzid is Tunisian herself, but moved to Paris before the 2010 revolution that launched the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.  Tunisia is the only success story for democracy that came out of that wave, although it’s still a very a young and fragile democratic state.  In As I Open My Eyes, Bouzid shows a strong willed young girl – adored and sheltered by her parents – waking up artistically, sexually and politically.  At 18 Farah does what many girls her age do:  she lies to her mother and sneaks out of the house, then wheedles her way back into her angry mother’s affections.  She chafes at her family’s career hopes for her (to become a doctor), wanting instead to pursue her less practical passion (musicology).  She pits her doting father, who is rarely home because of his job, against her strict, ever-present mother.  In short, Farah is a bit spoiled and self-centered.   But the stakes are higher than she seems to  understand, even when her bandmates argue that some songs are simply too political to perform publicly.  Farah remains convinced that she is untouchable.

I hardly know where to start in praising As I Open My Eyes.  In her first role, Baya Medhaffer is enchanting, with an expressive face (and a mouth just made for pouting at her mother) framed by glorious curls.  She’s also a soulful singer, and one of the great pleasures of As I Open My Eyes is how much time Bouzid devotes to the band’s rehearsals and performances.  Their punk-tinged Tunisian music is spellbinding:  I’d like to own the soundtrack to this album.

As I Open My Eyes also has terrific editing and camera work.  The scenes tend to be short, with lots of movement.  It’s as if the whole movie is infused with Farah’s unstoppable energy.

Political dissent can sound romantic to those of us who have never experienced political repression.  It’s also easier to embrace in youth, when we are naturally wired for rebellion.  But how long can you fight the system if you want some kind of normal life?

The real heart of As I Open My Eyes, though, lies in the relationship between Farah and her mother, Hayet (Ghalia Benali).  Hayet is beautiful and strong minded, like her daughter, but her energies have been turned to trying to nurture and protect Farah.  Early in the film her protectiveness seems almost irrational, but it’s grounded in painful experience.  When Farah is in danger Bouzid shows just how strong Hayet is, and what she’s prepared to do for her daughter’s sake.  Watch the three bathroom scenes Bouzid artfully places early, midway and late in the movie to see the push-pull of the mother/daughter relationship.  It’s difficult to let your children step into adulthood under the  best circumstances.  Tunisia in 2010 was not the best circumstances.

Political dissent can sound romantic to those of us who have never experienced political repression.  It’s also easier to embrace in youth, when we are naturally wired for rebellion.  But how long can you fight the system if you want some kind of normal life?  What if you want a career, a home, a family?  When is it time to leave the barricades – or the stage – and settle into a quieter, safer life?  The compromises that Farah’s parents made are the same ones that allowed her to grow up in security, that gave her the sass and spirit she uses to reject the status quo.  Were they wrong?

I confess that these questions are not ones I’ve had to wrestle with much as an American, at least not until recently.  As for understanding Farah and Hayet’s context, I confess my ignorance.  I knew almost nothing about Tunisia until after watching As I Open My Eyes.  I followed up  my viewing by reading about the country’s history, revolution, and current political climate.  The democratically elected president continues the country’s strongly secular tradition, but the Islamists now dominate the parliament.  Tunisian women, in particular, are worried about the growing influence of ultra-conservative Islam and the affect it may have on women’s rights in Tunisia.  If Farah were a real person, she would be about 25 now.  Would she still be singing?  Would she be finding new reasons to protest, to resist?  Or would she, perhaps, have married and become a mother – and like Hayet, would she now be doing whatever is necessary to protect her child?  I want to believe that these outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive – that love and family and the zeal to dissent can be held in tension.   But there’s no judgment against Hayet in As I Open My Eyes, and I won’t judge her either.  I haven’t lived in a police state.  I hope I would have the courage to speak to truth to the power, even if it meant real personal risk.  To be honest, I also hope that kind of courage is never required of me.