A music-filled Tunisian film perfectly fits this doubtful moment

For anyone who’s followed Khyam Allami’s shape-shifting modes of musical expression, it’s no surprise that his compositional talents are finally being appropriated by cinema. Known largely for his oud compositions, his label Nawa Recordings, and his cross-regional band, Alif (with Bashar Farran, Maurice Louca, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Khaled Yassine), the 34-year-old has now created a score that’s a tribute to his versatility.

Through the creation of a fictional Arabic alt-rock band, Allami composed, arranged and produced a soundtrack that’s as nuanced, lo-fi and punk rock as the movie itself. A coming of age story, Leyla Bouzid’s award-winning debut feature, A peine j’ouvre les yeux (As I Open My Eyes) is an enigmatic portrayal of the trials and tribulations of 18-year-old Farah (newcomer Baya Medhaffar) and her politically subversive band in Tunis during the months leading up to uprising at the end of 2010.

Farah lives under a constant gaze, our own through Bouzid’s admiring camera but also that of everyone in her life, who each expect something different from her. It’s a lot of pressure. But at the same time as resisting and shunning authority — from her parents, state and society — Farah almost courts it, flirts with it even. Her own gaze is frank and trusting, and it makes her increasingly compelling to watch.

Farah has just graduated from high school and isn’t keen on studying medicine as some family members expect. She’s more interested in band practice with her friends, and the band, Joujma, questions the status quo and the government through its lyrics:

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.

The 14-track soundtrack, released on Nawa Recordings on January 22, features original music largely by Khyam for Joujma, in addition to three stunning instrumental (oud) interludes, and the title track of Maurice Louca’s most recent album, Benhayyi al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot).

Allami and Bouzid worked together from casting and pre-production through to the film’s final sound mixing to develop, according to Nawa’s press release, a “new and youthful sound for the band, informed by Tunisian folk music such as the vocally driven songs from the city of El Kef,” and inspired by artists such as Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Björk and Kim Gordon.

Joujma is made up of five amateur actor-musicians with a sound very much influenced by Khyam’s band Alif: Farah on vocals, her boyfriend Borhene (played by Montasser Ayari) on oud, his sister Ines (Deena Abdelwahed) on keys and electronics, and off-screen brothers Sami (Marwen Soltana, bass) and Ska (Youssef Soltana, drums).

Joujma’s fresh, punky oud-based sound and poetic lyrics by Tunisian writer Ghassan Ammami in colloquial Tunisian Arabic are interlaced with the film’s dramatic narrative. Allami apparently used the lyrics as a point of departure for his compositions in hopes of deepening the social, cultural and political themes that push along the film’s plot, which includes an exciting amount of sex, snitches, and serenades – as well as humor.

The connectivity between the songs and scenes allows the soundtrack to mirror the film’s plot but also its aesthetics. Shots of the band’s live shows are captured and viewed through an old-school camcorder that gives a lo-fi feel similar to the band’s live sound.

Farah displays a series of purely punk tactics in order to perform, locking her mother (played brilliantly by Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali) in her bedroom to sneak out to a gig, or making out with Borhene in dangerously semi-public spaces. He pushes her to explore herself through music and their relationship. At the beginning she’s nervous of who might be watching them, but as she takes the lead in various ways, he starts to question the attention she’s attracting. It seems a little clichéd at times, but it’s also part of the charm.

Farah is a rebel, and she rocks. This becomes clear in a scene at a house party where she’s dancing to Louca’s Salute the Parrot with a random guy in order to make the suddenly oppressive Borhene jealous. “Hey, cool it,” Farah says to the guy as he tries to kiss her. “What, I thought you were a feminist?” he retorts. “I am a feminist, and you’re a jerk,” she smartly replies.

Farah’s story is all-consuming, as is Medhaffer’s performance. She draws you into her life and world and momentarily it is all that matters. This is broken up by occasional references to other realities in Tunisia, such as the snippets of her father and co-workers in the Gafsa phosphate mines fighting with their bosses over Ramadan bonuses, and her mother’s own turbulent childhood and lost love.

But eventually everything comes back to bite her in the ass, as with any good activist in the Arab world it seems. The snitch is revealed and the drama unfolds in the last quarter of the film, which is powerful despite feeling hurried and a bit forced. As Farah is made to open her eyes, she sees the degree of involvement of everyone in her life, but also, more devastatingly, how her own political idealism affects them and her own physical safety.

Self-promotion and the courting of notoriety is raised intermittently throughout the film: “It’ll be OK. People listen to us, they follow us on Facebook. We’re going to make a fuss. This mustn’t be hushed up.”

When in rehearsal the band is safe, in a bubble filled with dreams of potential and the right amount of creative tension. But when they get on stage, their performance becomes an act of protest due to the expressive urgency of the subversive lyrics and general DIY, damn-the-man ethos the band exudes.

Repetition is used frequently, particularly with the music, which links us back to the subtle, revolutionary essence of the film. The tracks repeat throughout the unfolding and revolving plot, taking new shape with each shifting scene to remind us that everything can change in a blink of Farah’s eyes.

Ultimately, it’s the three different renditions of the film’s title track, A Pein J’ouvre les yeux that drive home the film’s nuanced and youthful revolutionary spirit.

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 their heads are castles being built.

For this is the song that both makes and breaks Farah. It’s also the song that allows her, despite everything, to continue, which is also what the film seems to be urging the rest of us “children of precarity,” who, for some reason, still believe in change.

Now, after several waves of political change, unemployment protests are once again rocking Tunisia. There has also been a crackdown on cultural spaces and informal arts venues, which feels rather familiar over here in Egypt.

There aren’t many films like this that deal with censorship and security pre-revolution in such a subtle way. It is perfect for this moment, one in which security has trumped precarity, for now, such that we have almost become parodies of ourselves. What is this community of journalists, activists, singers, poets and artists that we have created, are part of, and at times seems so all-consuming and important, and what is its relation to the wider context we’re living in? As Borhene writes in lyrics he gives Farah to read, “You’re the problem, the solution, freedom and condemnation.”

As I Open My Eyes plays at Cairo’s Zawya from one week starting March 9, 2016.

Maha ElNabawi 

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