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Tunisian film world is witnessing a surge in production with a variety of themes, which were not usually allowed for quite a long, triggering what is called ‘a post-revolution cinema revival.’ According to producer Habib Attia, “Since 2011, one of the most tangible benefits we’ve seen is the ability to talk about all topics, especially themes of society, our daily life, its complexity and its richness” (Arab Times, 4 November 2018). Nouri Gana, who has published extensively on modernist, postcolonial and comparative Arab literatures and cultures, says that it “is impossible to watch a Tunisian film today from an exclusively pre-revolutionary perspective. The present historical juncture will stealthily thrust itself to center stage. Besides, the value of film does not reside solely in its appropriateness to its own historical moment of production, but equally in its relevance to other, yet to come, historical moments” (Gana 2011). Even as the ‘Arab Spring’ set in Tunisia in 2010, filmmakers lost no time in filming demonstrations and agitations. In less than a few years, several films portraying the events leading to the ‘Arab Spring’ began to appear, and Leyla Bouzid’s debut As I Opened My Eyes (2015) emerged the widely acclaimed one.

As I Open My Eyes is set in the immediate backdrop of Tunisian Revolution that sparked the Arab Spring. Farah, an 18 year old girl who wants to become a singer, is the central character in the film. The narrative revolves around her life in Tunis, relationship with her mother and the turnabout of events after joining a political rock band. The story develops in the background of emerging political tensions in the society and social unrest against the state. The film was the Tunisian submission for the Academy Award in Foreign Language Film category.

Farah Kallel completed her exams and is about to join the university for her higher studies. Hayet, Farah’s mother, wants her to study medicine. But Farah following her passion for music joined a political rock band, a group of coming-of-age musicians. The rock band was engaged in making songs that were highly critical of authoritarian and repressive government. The dissent voice had already invited the wrath of state authorities who were closely watching the activities of the band. Farah was secretly dating Borhene, who was a member of the band.

Farah joined the band because of her love for music and Borhene. She was unaware about the fact that the political band was the target of the police. Hayet came to know about her daughter’s activities and she opposed Farah singing for the band. But Farah locks her mother in a room and leaves for her first gig. The songs become popular among the people and the band got opportunities to perform in many places nearby. The songs resonated with the popular dissent feeling against the state. The music fueled the civil resistance movements that were gaining roots in Tunis. Later police arrests Borhene and beat him while interrogating about the rock band. He returns and accuses Ali, another member in the band, for video recording the gigs and informing the police about the band.

Farah’s dissent voice also reaches the police and she goes missing when she was with her mother in a bus station. Hayet searched for her daughter everywhere and only later she came to know that her daughter was abducted by the police. After sexual assault and abuse in prison Farah was released. The experience in the prison pulls her down to an emotional trauma and she was in deep depression after that. She slowly came back to life with the help of her mother. The movie ends with Hayet helping her daughter to sing a song.

As I Open My Eyes is not only a movie about the life of a girl in times of political tensions in Tunisia, but it is also an exploration of gender equality, corruption, civil unrest and cultural resistance in Tunisia. By narrating the events that occur in the lives of Farah, Hayet, Borhene and others, Bouzid carefully delve into the socio-political situation in Tunisia shortly before the Jasmine Revolution. Throughout the film we sense the revolution coming. The bonus issues, jobless youth, divide between rich and poor, corrupted police, problems faced by woman and many such issues featured in the film incorporates the social dimensions of Tunisian society during the authoritarian rule.

In many wars and conflicts, we see the cultural resistance along with the popular demonstrations and strikes. Poets, artists, singers, musicians, painters, actors and others organize from nowhere in the streets and back the civil resistance movements through creative and artistic means of expression that reaches more people easily. The political rock band in the movie is one of the many that actually aids the people’s movement against the repressive state. Their songs touched the hearts of people and became a stimulus for the ordinary people to join the resistance. Bouzid captures that artistic resistance through the songs in the film composed by Khyam Allami, well known Iraqi musician who is an adept in playing Arabic oud lute music.

Farah and the band practiced their songs in a bar which is usually male enclaves. Borhene was not interested in Farah dancing and singing in such bars in front of many men around her. The ‘male gaze’ when a woman enters a bar is also seen when Hayet enters a bar to meet Borhene. In one scene where Farah dances and sings, a boy try to take advantage of her and when she says no, he asks Aren’t you a Feminist? with a notion that from feminists men can seek sexual benefits. The freedom of a young girl is contained by many such perceptions of a patriarchal society.

The film is appealing also because it carefully looks into the perspective of women at the time of authoritarian rule and civil unrest which is often missing in cinema and elsewhere. The movie falls under the ‘her-story’ genre of films that shares the feminist perspective of history. In the film, Hayet recollects her young age which was similar to that of Farah and we came to know how the society and state intrudes in the life of people. Farah’s encounter with police in the prison is another example of how woman suffers during authoritarian crackdowns.
Farah’s father Mahmoud who refused to join the governing party was posted far away from Tunis in Gafsa phosphate mines. The significance is that it was from these mines the initial protests began with the workers’ movement against the government. In the last scenes, we hear from Mahmoud that he had signed for the ‘Party’. He also mentions about the bonus issues and other problems regarding the working conditions of working class people. The issue of unemployment also props up in some scenes.

Above all one song in the movie speaks volumes about the life of people in Tunisia during the authoritarian rule. In the summer of 2010, the song is very crucial.

As I open my eyes,
I see those retreating to exile,
Crossing the ocean’s immensity
on a pilgrimage to death,
With the country’s troubles,
people lose their minds.
Looking for new troubles
different from those they know.
As I open my eyes, I see people,
who are extinguished,
Trapped in their sweat, their tears are salty,
Their blood has been stolen and
their dreams have faded,
On the heads, castles are being built.

The high rate of unemployment, poverty, inflation, corruption, poor living conditions, constraints on political freedom, class divide, food riots and so on, led to a popular uprising in Tunisia which was a series of intensive civilian demonstration on streets against the longtime head of the state Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself on fire in December 2010. The self-immolation sparked the rage in public which ended in the ousting of Ben Ali who ruled the Tunisia from 1987. The 23 years of authoritarian rule ended with a massive popular protest, known in the name Jasmine Revolution, which inspired the people in neighbouring countries in North Africa and West Asia.

In many scenes in the film one question crop up which is, You signed up for the Party? The rest is history.

References

Gana, Nouri (2011): “Essential Viewing: Five Tunisian Films from a Postrevolutionary Perspective,“ Jadaliyya, 18 April, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/23902

Aftab, Kaleem (2015): “Venice Review: ‘As I Open My Eyes’ is the Best Fictional Film Yet About the Arab Spring,” Indie Wire, 4 September, https://www.indiewire.com/2015/09/venice-review-as-i-open-my-eyes-is-the-best-fictional-film-yet-about-the-arab-spring-58567/

Gokul KS is a Feature Writer at Global South Colloquy. His articles are also published in his blog www.lanthanbathery.wordpress.com 

The write up has also appeared in Global South Colloquy. http://globalsouthcolloquy.com/__trashed/


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