Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 14, 2016 9:33 pm 
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Bittersweet image of the Arab Spring seen through young musicians

A delicate and evanescent film that hints at the hope and despair that accompany any thoughts today of the Arab Spring, this focuses on a young girl who's a gifted singer with a Tunisian garage band. Some of their songs could be from a Fifties Egyptian musical. Others are audacious, poetic, and contemporary. It's funny by the way that the "original" title is in French, because dialogue is all in Tunisian Arabic dialect, with only the occasional French word or phrase, as is maghrebin custom. The two languages of the film are Arabic and French, no English. Farah (Baya Medhaffer) is constantly nagged by her mother Hayet -- played by singer Ghalia Benali and arguably more beautiful than Medhaffer, who's partly disapproving of her free ways and partly just worried and afraid. (It's part of the story that Hayet was once a free spirit herself - so knows the dangers, and is now more conservative.) A complication is that Farah's father (Lassaad Jamoussi) lives in the center-west city of Gafsa and can't get a transfer to Tunis and be near them because he won't swear loyalty to the ruling party.

The danger is the dictatorship of President Ben Ali. Farah and her band are in themselves a provocation, and some of the songs she sings allude to repression. There is every kind of surveillance going on; they're in the public and so under scrutiny. Farah is young, defiant, unaware of the consequences. By the film's end she will be sadder and wiser. She has just graduated from high school with honors, and her family wants her to study medicine, but she prefers the idea of musicology (which, to the old-fashioned, isn't even a word). We Americans may have no idea of this world, but the heartrending aspect is that Farah is blissfully ignorant of the dangers herself. Her headstrong defiance is beautiful but dangerous.

Essential to the coolness of the film is Farah's lute player and semi-boyfriend Borhene (Montassar Ayari), who plays the traditional lute but makes it sound thoroughly modern (as do many young musicians throughout the Middle East). Borhene, with his long, pulled-back hair in a top knot and his lean frame has a swoony quality that's of the moment - though after Farah behaves freely at a party Borhene reveals himself to have an old-fashioned macho, conservative side still. Farah's and Borhene's ups and downs and squabbles seem trivial but contribute to the youthfulness of the film. On their level the group is both politically bold and the essence of hip, blending the traditional and thoroughly modern in a way that's a little like the great Eighties Moroccan group Naas al-Ghraywan (if not quite on that level of musical intensity). The group is about to make a breakthrough and when they preview a new song it's already a big hit. It's called "My Country" and has the line, "My country, land of dust/Your gates are closed and bring misfortune." People know what it means. One of their friends is videoing them all the time. Probably it could go on YouTube.

Hayet is visited by Moncef (Youness Ferhi), an Interior Ministry employee who warns that Farah is drinking and staying out late among men. Hayet repeatedly freaks out and Farah repeatedly breaks away in service of her music. We have to realize through the subtle nuances of the scenes that this isn't about a generation gap but about the dangers of a repressive regime whose population is on the verge of revolt. Some parts of the film seem schematic, and the latter part is at once more blunt and more subtle. But the lowering of the boom is the film's most intense experience it offers, one that puts everything else into relief. As I Open My Eyes seems evanescent, even flimsy. But the feeling it leaves you with is intense and particular - an unusually vivid and personal sense of what it's like to be young, gifted, and not black, but living under a dictatorship. The good news is that Tunisia is one of the Arab Spring countries where the revolution has relatively held firm, though there are conflicts between secular and Islamist elements, and there have been several severe terrorist attacks that have induced fear and frightened off a lot of the usual tourists. Galia Benali gives the stongest performance, but Baya Medhaffer holds her own. The songs by Iraqi composer Kham Allami are fascinating, and Medhaffer and the musicians are fine.

As I Open My Eyes/À peine j'ouvre les yeux, 102 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2015; won the Europa Cinemas Label prize as best European film in Venice Days section Also Toronto, 15 other festivals, including Tribeca (US debut). Released in France 22 Dec. 2015 it was very well received (AlloCiné 3.8--but only ten reviews). Acquired by Kino Lorber for US release. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival May 2016.

Interview about the film with Laura Blum on Digital Production Buzz/.


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