I have occasionally observed that some people live up to their names, such as a man I met named Seaborn who was an oceanographer. It appears that Tunisian director/screenwriter Leyla Bouzid’s name also was her destiny. Her first feature film, As I Open My Eyes (2015), takes place in 2010, the year her country experienced the Sidi Bouzid Revolt, named for the city where protests began. By mid-January 2011, the repressive regime of longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was history, and revolts in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain—collectively comprising the Arab Spring—soon commenced.
Bouzid was 26 in 2010 and was certainly aware of the dissatisfaction loose in the land. In Tunis, where she grew up in a well-to-do home, young people used their art to register their protest and disseminated in throughout the country on Facebook. She has chosen to dramatize this part of the resistance through the experiences of 18-year-old Farah (Baya Medhaffar), a singer in a group of bourgeois musicians who are gaining a following with their emo-rock protest songs.
Farah is an idealist, headstrong, and sexually liberated. She is in love with Borhène (Montassar Ayari), the band’s songwriter and oud player, and pushes the boundaries of how her mother, Hayet (Ghalia Benali), expects her to behave. Farah’s father, Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi), is more lenient with her, but he lives and works nearly 200 miles south of Tunis and cannot seem to score a transfer back to the city to be with his family because he refuses to join the country’s ruling party.
Farah and her band come under the scrutiny of the country’s security forces because of their politically charged lyrics, and soon Borhène and Farah find themselves in physical jeopardy. What began as an energetic look at the joys of being young segues into the trials of two worried parents who are relentless in trying to save their daughter from both the state and despair.
In her screen debut and only feature film, Medhaffar is a magnetic presence. Her lion’s mane of curls, bright and eager eyes, mischievous smile, and trendy clothes mark her as a self-possessed woman-to-be, but the first time she makes love with Borhène, she lifts the blanket in the morning to view his naked body, a sight she has never seen before. Her bravura masks an innocence not only of sexual relations, but also of the real dangers to which she is exposing herself.
Benali digs deep to play a woman essentially on her own in seeing her daughter through one of her most difficult developmental stages. Having been rebellious and deliriously in love in her youth, Hayet allows Farah to have her head while scolding her for staying out late and reminding her to fill out her university application. But, in a truly harrowing scene, Hayet starts speeding through traffic in a seemingly earnest attempt to kill them both after Farah refuses to give up singing at a gig. In her momentary emotional abandon, we can see that the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Later, as Bouzid films her roaming the empty streets of Tunis and brazenly entering a men’s club in search of Farah, her mature love and concern are heartbreakingly real.
The film is packed with music that both sketches what life in Tunisia is like for the downtrodden and shows off the very real chops of a talented group of musicians. The aptly named As I Open My Eyes is both universal as a coming-of-age film, and very specific about what coming of age in a dictatorship looks like. This auspicious first film of both its star and director is a real winner.