AS I OPEN MY EYES (À peine j’ouvre les yeux)
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: Leyla Bouzid
Written by: Leyla Bouzid, Marie-Sophie Chambon
Cast: Baya Medhaffer, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari, Aymen Omrani, Lassaad Jamoussi
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 8/30/16
Opens: September 9, 2016
Rock stars make more money than doctors. People pay happily to see rock stars because they’re exciting, but they pay doctors, generally less entertaining, regretfully. And people collect autographs from rock stars, but not from doctors, whose signatures are unreadable anyway. So what does a protective mother want her rock-inclined daughter to be? A doctor, of course.
“As I Open My Eyes” (the French title À peine j’ouvre les yeux means “I barely open his eyes), takes place in Tunisia before the pro-democratic Jasmine Revolution of 2010, which is significant because Tunisia was under the vile dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the state since 1987 (supported by the U.S., of course). To the credit of the government, Tunisia remained secular. Women were not covered up: in fact they could wear short skirts, as does Farah (Baya Medhaffar) the heroine of this tale. Nevertheless, given the presence of secret police, the state did not look kindly on boys and girls making out in public—or otherwise. Implicit in the story, a band could play rock, people could dance as they do in the U.S., but heaven help a singer who (like our heroine) uses the stage to criticize the government. In a sour mood one evening, Farah, who in better times makes out with her boyfriend Borhène and even appears with him in bed, declaims “Oh my country, land of dust, your gates are closed and bring misfortune.” Some in the crowd boo, and all is noted by Moncef (Youness Ferhi) from the Interior Ministry (secret cop) who tells Farah’s mom Hayet (Ghalia Benali), to the disgust of Farah’s dad who has so far refused to join the party.
We’re led to infer that Hayet, who rages and rants when her daughter comes home late or is reported by Moncef, was once a free spirit herself but had her spirit crushed by the ruling party. As a middle-class woman who hires a housekeeper with the instructions to keep watch on Farah, she wants what’s best for her daughter. Given that the eighteen-year-old has a good mind, Hayet does not want the girl to waste time with rockers but to accept admission to medical school. (Can a Tunisian really go from high-school directly to med school?)
The picture is full of energy, lots of songs, Borhène strumming away on his oud. It’s refreshing to see how Borhène encourages his girl’s spontaneity, though the band manager, Ali (Aymen Omrani), wants the musicians to censor themselves lest the group lose out on promising gigs. In one disturbing scene, two thuggish regime cops act cowardly in their questioning of Farah.
This is quite a production especially considering it’s the director’s full-feature debut and what’s more introduces Baya Medhaffar in her first movie role—a high-energy woman full of the passion and stubbornness of adolescence, yet contrite when her mother goes ballistic in dressing her down. In one scary scene Hayet plows through Tunis traffic at breakneck speed, refusing to slow down until her daughter promises not to show up for that night’s gig.
“As I Open My Eyes” is filmed in Tunisia in the town of Gafsa and the Gare de Moncef Bey in Tunis. Selected for film festivals in Toronto and Tribeca, the film took the Venice Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award and won Best Fiction Film at the Dubai International Film Festival. Dialogue is Arabic with some French, all nicely subtitled.
Unrated. 103 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B