Farah (Baya Medhaffar) is a young woman at a crossroads. Accepted to medical school, Farah struggles to keep her proud mother (Ghalia Benali) happy while continuing to pursue her real passion - music. With her underground band just beginning to be noticed for its daring lyrics and raw power, Farah longs to immerse herself in their truths despite the inherent risks of performing such edgy material in Tunisia on the eve of the Jasmine Revolution in 2010. Pulling against conflicting forces, Farah's life becomes more complicated when police become alerted to the band's existence and Farah learns that one of her friends is the snitch.
The directorial debut from Leyla Bouzid, As I Open My Eyes is inspired by the director's own experiences running a cine-club during the dictatorship of Ben Ali. The film has had a strong festival run including screenings at TIFF and Venice along with a Bronze Tanit and FIPRESCI award at the Carthage Film Days. Now, As I Open My Eyes opens up on September 9th at New York City's Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and on September 30th at L.A.'s Laemmle Royal Theatre with a national release due to follow.
While As I Open My Eyes risks familiarity, Bouzid keeps the story interesting with secondary characters whose presence is relatively brief yet feels important and by building even the conflicted relationships with a strong humanity and sense of connection. This is most true in the immensely satisfying relationship between Farah and her mother, who are seemingly always in conflict yet possess a quiet warmth and familial bond that is evident throughout the film. Medhaffar gives a tour-de-force performance here, elevating Farah far beyond the usual one-note performances one often sees in this type of film. Similarly, Benali, a noted actor/singer in real life, gives a tremendously layered and disciplined performance as a mother both bound by culture yet fiercely protective of the daughter who insists she doesn't need protecting.
As I Open My Eyes benefits greatly from Khyam Allami's culturally relevant and vibrant music set to lyrics by Ghassen Amani. Lensing by Sebastian Goepfert (Blue is the Warmest Color) is stark and intimate and alive, while it is ultimately Bouzid's own intelligent, thoughtful direction that makes the film so memorable.
Distributed by Kino Lorber, As I Open My Eyes is a tremendous feature debut from Leyla Bouzid and a tremendous spotlight for Tunisian culture. If you get a chance, check it out.