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Short Takes: As I Open My Eyes

(Leyla Bouzid, France/Belgium/Tunisia/United Arab Emirates, Opening September 9)

Set in Tunisia a few months before the 2010-11 Jasmine Revolution, As I Open My Eyes tells the story of Farah (revelatory screen rookie Baya Medhaffar), an effervescent 18-year-old who sings for a politically conscious rock group. Her artistic aspirations are continually obstructed by her concerned mother, Hayet (Ghalia Benali), who learns that Farah has not only been seen drinking and socializing with men—including bandmate and lover Borhène (Montassar Ayari)—but also singing lyrics critical of the country’s ruling party. Farah eventually circumvents Mom, only to encounter more difficult problems overcoming romantic disillusion, intra-band friction, and brutal oppression.

Director Leyla Bouzid could have easily fashioned her feature-length (and beautifully shot) debut according to a simplistic uplifting blueprint: the unabashed free spirit triumphs over complacency and authoritarianism through the sheer power of music. Instead, Bouzid charts the complex contradictions of life during the Ben Ali years, when moderately tolerated freedoms were kept in check by state surveillance and a deeply ingrained social conservatism. Torn between creative expression and pragmatic survival, youthful exploration and bitter reality, Farah gradually learns that every Tunisian—whether informer, radical, party employee, or aged protester—must create a dual identity to avoid suspicion when chasing dreams.

The film’s poignant music (composed by Khyam Allami) embodies this dualism with sounds and styles simultaneously traditional and modern, joyful and outraged, and hypnotic and sobering.