'As I Open My Eyes' ('A peine j’ouvre les yeux'): Venice Review

As I Open My Eyes Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Unifrance

As I Open My Eyes Still - H 2015

A frequently familiar but finally touching story. 

Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid's feature debut stars Ghalia Benali as a mother who has a hard time keeping her rebellious rock chick daughter in check.

The young female singer of a Tunisian rock group struggles to reconcile her desire to instigate change and enjoy more freedom with her sheltered upbringing in As I Open My Eyes (A peine j’ouvre les yeux), from debuting director Leyla Bouzid. Though the story hits mostly familiar notes, this appropriately somewhat scruffy feature derives a lot of its energy from a spunky lead performance by newcomer Baya Medhaffer, while the story is emotionally grounded by the warm presence of Ghalia Benali as the girl’s loving but eternally worried and downbeat mother. After twin premieres in Venice and Toronto, this should see a healthy festival life with some theatrical action in countries such as France.

Crucially, and this is a detail that might be lost on audiences not entirely au courant with events in North Africa since the Arab Spring, the story unfolds over the summer of 2010, a few months before the civil resistance of what would later be called the Jasmine Revolution would topple longtime president Ben Ali, which in turn made way for the country’s first free elections. Now, almost five years later, it is clear that a lot of the freedom especially the younger protesters had hoped for has failed to materialize, mainly because the Ennahda Movement, the not quite radical but rather conservative Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, was democratically elected to lead the country. Knowledge of this paradox is necessary to understand the shades of grey the film itself wants to explore, with everything that the film suggests happened that summer looking more bittersweet and melancholy if you keep in mind where the country and these characters might be headed next.

The round-faced and curly-haired Farah (Medhaffer) has just graduated from high school and is the singer of an underground rock band known for their lyrics that question the country’s status quo (echoes of the Lebanese alternative artist Mashrou Leila). "We all have problems, that’s why we make music," explains one of the band members. Instead of thinking about going to university, where Farah’s been pressured by her family to study medicine, she’s more interested in practicing with her bandmates, which include her secret boyfriend, the man-bun sporting Bohrene (Montassar Ayari), one of the group’s hipster lyricists and musicians.

But by staying out late at night, singing and getting drunk on beer in a bar in which she’s the only woman, she greatly displeases her mother, Hayet (Benali), who is worried about her daughter’s future and reputation. To make matters worse, she not only has to do most of the worrying on her own, since Farah’s father is working in a faraway town, but she’s told about her daughter’s supposed indiscretions by a man who used to be Hayet's lover in her youth but who has now become an oily government apparatchik.  

Countless movies have been made about kids from conservative families who want to break free and sing or dance — call it the Footloose syndrome, if you will — and a lot of what Bouzid and her French co-screenwriter Marie-Sophie Chambon (Princesse) come up with is surprisingly familiar, despite the (at least to Western eyes) quite exotic setting. Strong-willed but not immune to the kind of carelessness that youngsters often think comes with personal freedom, Farah has to be creative to hide what she’s doing and risks not only being discovered by her mother but also, because of the band’s provocative lyrics, by the police, who increasingly seem to know where they might be rehearsing or performing next.

If most of the in-band bickering and the romantic storyline between Farah and Bohrene feels somewhat generic, what sets Eyes apart is the complex rapport that Farah has with Hayet. The latter initially comes off as just another oppressive and conservative mother figure. But thanks to Benali’s warmhearted performance and a willingness to develop her character, especially in the film’s second half, she slowly transforms into a three-dimensional and even tragic character.

The conversation in which Farah discovers that her mother used to be a rebel as well is beautifully written and marks a major turning point in their rapport. Hayet’s explanation of why she’s now a more conservative-leaning mother is both moving and convincing, suggesting that the position of at least some women in Tunisia is not necessarily one of cruel subjugation but a combination of resignation and being realistic about their station in their society and country. The idea that not everyone has it in them to fight for the betterment of their own lives is, especially seen post-Jasmine Revolution, a sobering yet comprehensible notion. And in an interesting twist, it is Farah’s kind, if stern, father who needs to acts as a peacekeeper when things become impossible between mother and daughter, who might be more alike than they'd both like to admit. 

Thankfully, not every scene in the film is depressing. Though only an adequate singer, Medhaffer practically explodes with energy when she’s behind the microphone, making for a very charismatic performer. Cinematographer Sebastien Goepfert is at his best during the concert sequences, imbuing the film with a sense of vigor and visual oomph that matches the band’s songs (written by Khyam Allami with lyrics by Ghassen Amani). Some of the short discussions between the band members also suggest there’s something in the air that will finally lead to the events audiences know will happen in December, while the antics of Hayet’s mischievous housekeeper, who acts as a go-between between mother and daughter, also adds some light comedy and another welcome female perspective to the mix.

Production companies: Blue Monday Productions, Propaganda Production, Helicotronc

Cast: Baya Medhaffer, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari, Aymen Omrani, Lassaad Jamoussi, Deena Abdelwahed, Youssef Soltana, Marwen Soltana 

Director: Leyla Bouzid

Screenplay: Leyla Bouzid, Marie-Sophie Chambon

Producers: Sandra Da Fonseca, Imed Marzouk, Anthony Rey, Nathalie Mesuret, Bertrand Gore

Director of photography: Sebastien Goepfert

Production designer: Raouf Helioui

Costume designer: Nadia Anane

Editor: Lilian Corbeille

Music: Khyam Allami

Sales: Doc & Film International

No rating, 102 minutes