Leyla Bouzid originally thought she’d be a cinematographer, growing up fascinated by how she could paint with light as a still photographer in her teenage years, yet she there was an obstacle she couldn’t overcome.
“I’m very little and I’m not strong,” she laughs, a year removed from the triumphant debut of her first film as a director, “As I Open My Eyes,” which proves to be vigorous argument against her latter description of herself as far as skill if not physical ability.
The daughter of a Tunisian filmmaker who carved out her own path to the director’s chair, Bouzid’s debut is nothing if not potent, telling the story of a rebellious young woman named Farah (Baya Medhaffer), who sneaks out to pursue singing with an underground band despite the objections of her mother (Ghalia Benali), whose anxieties are running high as the Jasmine Revolution roils on in the summer of 2010 as part of the Arab Spring. Farah’s desire to break free will be familiar to anyone who survived their teenage years, but as amplified by the same yearning of Tunisian citizenry to have their voices heard in a democracy, the story takes on new dimension.
Infused with acute cultural sensuality and emotional sensitivity, “As I Open My Eyes” feels as alive as Farah’s many performances throughout the film, full of the thrills of rebellious art and the intrigue that ensues when suspicion looms that one of the members of the band is covertly an undercover agent. As Farah discovers her own power, Bouzid demonstrates quite a bit of her own, working magic with a largely nonprofessional cast and channeling the electricity in the air into a propulsive drama. After a celebrated run on the festival circuit, the film begins its American theatrical run this week and for the occasion, Bouzid reflected on her first feature and how she let life into it, as well as the casting discoveries she made and traveling the world with the film.
How did this come about?
It came from several ideas, but one of the main [ones] is that when the revolution arrived in Tunisia, there were a lot of people that went out to film what was going on in the street, but my very first idea was, “Whoa, great, we’re finally going to be able to talk about old times, about the police state.” It was very important to me to try to talk about all this stuff because it was impossible to talk about it before, so I started to write about the energy of the youth and [how] little by little it’s destroyed by the system. I [already] made a short film that was about a mother/daughter relationship that was more about the mother and I wanted to keep on with this, but more with the daughter.
Music becomes such a big part of the film – of Farah’s evolution – and it isn’t part of the short, so how did it come in?
Yes, the short was really before the revolution and through the story of the short, I wanted to talk about this family and people lying [to each other], and in the central theme, I wanted to talk about the political situation, so my first idea [with the feature] was that this girl’s writing a blog that’s hidden [from her family], but then I thought this isn’t very cinematic. It will just be someone who’s always in front of her computer, and it’s very hard to make that interesting, so with my co-writer, we were saying what could we do for Farah? She could be a singer. That idea gave me a lot of images, especially because when I was a teenager in high school, I was often at concerts where there were some strange local bands that [performed] maybe one time or two times, and then they disappeared. So the idea became bigger and bigger while writing and preparing the film. I fell in love with the music, so it took up more and more space and I wanted to really show this energy.
Did the music actually help you figure out the story?
No, I first wrote the story and I would describe the kind of music and instruments [used], and I was also writing the lyrics in the story because the lyrics are a reaction to the story, but I went to a friend to write the songs in Tunisian.m I gave him my text in French, we talked a lot and I gave him some emotional colors and then I met also a lot of musicians. I got very, very lucky when I met the musician who made the music of the film because we really connected and he wrote in the voice of the lead actress, who’s not a professional singer or actress, and we did all the music live in the film.
That first musical performance in the restaurant is pretty breathtaking, both for the audience and it seems even those watching in the restaurant. Did they know what was going to happen?
People knew that they were there for a film, but we organized as if it was a real concert, so they were really drinking and enjoying the music, but of course every song was more than one take. [For the performances in general] I talked a lot with my [director of photography] about the fact how every sound could be interesting to play with and how we could catch the energy of every song – it doesn’t have to look like a music video, so we had freedom shooting it. We were really searching and the actors were in the center of the scene and we were really tracking their movements more and more…and because all the actors are nonprofessional, it was also good for them. It was also his first feature film as a DP – he was a cameraman on “Blue is the Warmest Color,” not the DP.
There were five or six [takes of that restaurant scene], so after the third or fourth time, they were all singing. [laughs] And that was fun because I saw when they’re [hearing it] for the seventh time and they’re still enjoying it, it was very good.
You’ve said you actually gave your cast the script to read, then rewrote it in their voice. Did any major changes come out of that?
That process was not that long. I was always rewriting with the actors, but this rewriting was not about the structure of a scene — it was important that we talk about it and really [go] inside the scenes. The whole band rehearsed in the mornings for three weeks before we started the film — and in the afternoon, I would work with one or all of them, but for some [scenes], it was just one or two days before the shooting. It was more with the young actor [Baya]. With [Ghalia], we did this less, but I took the time to read with her every scene she had to act and it was really a big help because sometimes she said, “Okay. I’m a mother, I would not say this this way, but I would this way,” and it was really wonderful because it was more right than what was written in the screenplay.
Did you have Ghalia and Baya actually spend any time together before filming to get that mother-daughter bond?
They didn’t spend so much time together because [Ghalia] is a singer in the real life and she was very busy, so she couldn’t come. But [Baya] was a big fan of hers [as a singer], so there was a real connection between them. The first time they met, you could see that in their energy. They had that special rhythm as soon as they were [acting] together, so this was a really big help.
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?
Of course, the police interrogation scene [in the third act] was challenging, but also for the main actress because it was very, very important for the film. The musical scenes were challenging, but more in a technical sense because we recorded the music live at the same time. There’s also the scene where [Farah’s] reading the poem because we had very, very little time to [shoot] the whole scene.
I would have thought that the car, where Hayet is driving so fast to make a point to Farah, would have been a challenge.
Ah, the car. We prepared it well. The [chemistry] worked so well between them already, but it was also a technical challenge, especially because we had one day to shoot it. We got lucky because [Ghalia] was really driving and she was really not afraid at all. She was driving really fast, so the daughter was really afraid! But it all worked.
What’s it been like to travel with this film?
It’s great because the film was received really, really well everywhere we went. Every time, people really are enthusiastic [about] discovering something they don’t know. They are discovering a Tunisia that they don’t imagine, so it was very enriching to travel with the film and every time the youth has said that they see themselves in the film.
“As I Open My Eyes” opens on September 9th in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and on September 30 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal. A full list of theaters and dates is here.