Leyla Bouzid’s French-Tunisian drama goes above and beyond the traditional coming of age story, using one girl’s journey to adulthood to explore politics, revolution and state sanctioned violence. As I Open My Eyes, gaining international attention for its portrayal of the Arab Spring, seeks to tackle such a prominent and life altering event through the eyes of its young protagonist: Farah.
Farah (Baya Medhaffer), an aspiring singer, wants to roam free, pursue a relationship with one of her fellow band members and sing about the injustices that her country’s government inflict on its people. Her mother, Hayet, wants Farah to become a doctor, to stay home, study and stay out of trouble. Conflict between mother and daughter escalates as Farah becomes a police target and then suddenly disappears. A metaphor for a country divided and torn apart, so is Farah’s mother in the struggle to find her.
As I Open My Eyes weaves a great many themes into its main narrative: coming of age, revolution and rebellion, mother/daughter relationships and falling in love for the first time. It is the recurring exploration of the ‘generational gap’, however, which makes the most impressive mark. The film, at its core, is about Farah’s radicalisation through her music and Hayet’s fear for her daughter. Hayet is incredibly uncomfortable with Farah’s lifestyle and the people that she is spending her time with. Trascending the overprotective mother stereotype, we are allowed to understand Hayet’s fear when Farah disappears, proving that Hayet was right to be terrified for her daughter.
Prior to this event, Farah and Hayet’s relationship had been fairly predictable. Rebellious teenager wanting to go out to bars versus overbearing mother wanting her to focus on her studies. What is unpredictable (and atypical) is that Hayet’s fears for Farah’s safety are grounded in truth. In a particularly emotional scene, Farah locks her mother in the house, in order to go and perform at a gig. It’s a surprising move, but one that allows us to see exactly what Farah is capable of, if motivated to do so. The lack of respect, and the broken trust signifies a near end to their relationship – Farah chooses her music (and therefore activism) over her mother.
Hayet’s admission to Farah at the every end of the film brings the two of them back together, and there is a realization that Hayet is only concerned for Farah’s welfare because she has been through all of this herself before. The reconciliation of mother and daughter is important, and not just because it so rarely happens in cinema. Though we understand that (politically at least), things are not going to get better anytime soon, the two women have each other, for now.
Representing Conflict Off-Screen
It is not often that we hear the stories of women in rebellions or uprisings, and this is where As I Open My Eyes is truly unique. Instead of an all-action ‘blockbuster’, with mass amounts of fighting, Bouzid opts to mimic the Arab Spring in Tunisia through her own experiences.
What could be more effective at representing a nation oppressed, beaten and bound by its own government, than watching Farah being violently interrogated by Tunisian police officers. Just as the government as supposed to protect their own people, so are the police. Bouzid focuses on Farah’s face for the entire scene, not cutting away to show the perpetrators. This is about Farah, a stand-in for the Tunisian population. It is uncomfortable to watch, shocking and upsetting in places. We understand that we are watching a young girl lose her trust in the very people supposed to protect her when all she wanted to do was sing.
Bouzid focusing so singularly on one human experience within this tumultuous period in Tunisian history ensures that we feel an emotional connection to Farah. We identify with her, and therefore the people. We watch an event unfold (the Arab Spring affected millions of people across many Middle Eastern countries) through the eyes of one young girl and two police officers. It’s stark, and incredibly powerful.
Much of As I Open My Eyes feels close and claustrophobic. Bouzid uses a lot of handheld camera, close-ups and home-movie style footage to convey a sense of confusion. The camera is a central part of the film – both as an object and as our gateway to this world. One of Farah’s friends from the band continually films them rehearsing, capturing Farah’s politically motivated monologues and lyrics. It is later revealed that this footage has been handed over to the police, and is what paints a target on Farah’s back.
The camera is weaponised throughout the film, and Bouzid does not shy away from this. She explicitly uses her own camera to show Farah’s emotional and physical journey, in total opposition to the exploitative way in which the camera is used within the film.
Whilst there are two very distinctive parts of the film – Farah’s exploration into a new world of music and activism, and Hayet’s despair at losing her daughter – the film seems to linger slightly too long on the first part. Watching Farah go through the motions of ‘adulthood’ (sexual experiences, drinking et cetera) is interesting, but it may have been more interesting to focus more on the effects of Farah’s experimenting, on both herself and her mother. Farah’s hedonist period seems slightly drawn out, particularly because As I Open My Eyes is not a long film.
The First Time
As I Open My Eyes, as a coming of age story, also lingers on Farah’s first sexual experiences as a parallel to her first performances as a singer. It isn’t quite clear whether Farah is new to the band or not, but what is clear is the awakening within her when she begins to sing about her country, her government and her people. It is almost an unconscious awakening; Farah does not intend to become a symbol of a revolution, she only wants to sing.
There are many films which depict a young girls first sexual experience as the making or breaking of her. A sexual encounter (almost always involving virginity) will result in a bad situation for the young, female protagonist, yet she will come out of it having ‘grown up’. Bouzid bucks this trend and presents us with Farah’s (implied) first sexual encounter as being joyful, sensual and completely within her control. Farah’s ‘coming of age’ is explored in both her newly discovered sexuality, but also in her political awakening.
Baya Medhaffer positively shines as Farah, walking a line between self-conviction and curiosity about the world around her. She brings an edge to Farah’s character, especially in the musical sequences. Her punk influenced growling of lyrics is spine chilling, and works incredibly well with the sound and visual aesthetic of the rest of the film.
One To Watch…
As I Open My Eyes is a snapshot of history. It is also a carefully and expertly woven story which explores passion, sexuality, mother-daughter relationships, a country at war with itself and a young girl caught up in the middle of it all. It’s fierce and bold, and you should definitely see it.
What are you favourite coming of age films? Let us know in the comments below!
As I Open My Eyes is on limited release in New York, and will get release in LA on September 30. Find international release dates here.
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