Africa in Motion

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11 November 2016

Africa in Motion: As I Open My Eyes (2015) Review by Stella Yanakieva

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To sing and be in danger of losing her life, or not to sing and be in danger of losing her soul and heart: this is the question for Farah, a 18-year-old girl from Tunis, whose true passion is reserved for music.

As I Open My Eyes is, fundamentally, a politically-charged story about music through the eyes of Farah, a recent high school graduate who just wants to enjoy her time being a teenager – falling in love, getting drunk, performing in a band. From an ordinary girl with dreams of studying musicology, she quickly becomes the target of surveillance from the authorities, thanks to some of the songs she's performing with her friends. Her brave spirit, nonetheless, conveys the message that music transforms everyone, turning them into better people.

Life in the summer of 2010, which places the film's story in the timeframe just before the start of the Jasmine Revolution, represents a constant battle between fear of possible threats and the consequences of actual repression. Authorities make sure that the citizens are always under observation, and as such, they are everything but truly free. Even if the notion of the 'Big Brother' element is only depicted at the very end of the film, throughout the entire narrative, there lingers a hint of scrutiny and insecurity.

Young Farah stands at the heart of the film, since virtually all characters lead to her: whether it is Bohrène, with whom she explores her sexuality and later on experiences her first heartbreak; or Hayet, the mother who understands her at first, being in possession of the same kind of a carefree spirit, yet has to gradually become more strict as to keep her daughter protected; or perhaps, Mahmoud, the father figure that's always missing from the picture.

The camera footage within the actual scenes brings not only an additional element of liveness and factuality, but also a documentary realism. After all, this is a story inspired by true events. The director, Leyla Bouzid, borrows from her own experience of being a native Tunisian, and what's more important, one who was living in Tunis during the Jasmine Revolution, in order to depict Farah's story with the authenticity needed.

As I Open My Eyes raises questions about gender equality, misogyny, sexuality, dreams, ambitions, freedom of choice, justice, art; and further investigates the relationships between the family members, between youngsters, between cultural traditions and contemporary trends.

Initially, the film portrays equality between the band members, but as the story evolves, upon seeing Farah dancing with other boys, Bohrène tells her to stop because everyone's looking at her and she's embarassing herself. Ultimately, Farah just wants to have fun, like any other teenage girl, yet as soon as a guy hits on her and she rejects him, he serves her with the bitter question, ''Aren't you a feminist?'' A question that leads to the understanding of ignorance, as to what exactly feminism stands for, among the citizens of this man's world.

Another important element of As I Open My Eyes is the exploration of the relationship between a mother and her daughter. The story goes through a couple of plot twists and changes of heart: such as, Hayet forbidding her daughter to go out to a gig and Farah locking her in her bedroom; from Hayet supporting her daughter in her pursuit of a music career to forcing her into studying medicine; from Farah trying to be a better daughter to becoming a complete rebel and ending up in the hands of the authorities. Eventually, the two characters, completely changed in the course of life, deservedly go back into another attempt of a mutually caring relationship.

As I Open My Eyes, the debut film of Leyla Bouzid, drops the viewer into a pool of emotions, at times with no sight of a life jacket or a life saving buoy. Yet despite the risk of drowning during the roughest bits of the film, ultimately, the story brings you to a catharsis. It is an enlightening account of the political injustice and the gender prejudice during the Jasmine Revolution. Last but not least, the film is also an inspiring tale of the beauty of music and how in times of desperation, it is only through art, having the opportunity to express the unspeakable, that one can remain sane.

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