« Coming to terms with the past will allow one to continue »

Interview with Leyla Bouzid by Olivier Barlet about As I Open My Eyes

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In French theatres on 23 December 2015, As I Open My Eyes is an event: the revelation of a young Tunisian filmmaker and a film of great significance (see review 13363). This interview, which focuses particularly on the cinematic gesture, is a useful way of measuring its importance.

Why the title « As I Open My Eyes? »
Leyla Bouzid: It reflects the 18-year-old character Farah as she opens her eyes to life; but also it is about her raised consciousness throughout the film. It also relates to the emerging awareness of her mother. Similarly, it is about a country opening its eyes to its reality. And in a more down-to earth-way, it is the title of a recurring song in the film.
With Farah, is it not the opportunity for you to show what you have lived, your youth?
It has often been said and believed that the Tunisia under Ben Ali was cool, however, I grew up in an environment where this was not the case. When the revolution took place, I had a strong urge to return to this period.
The film is constructed on the contrasting elements of the vitality of Farah and her band on the one hand and the concessions of the other adults on the other. But one wonders whether the adult element will gradually take over in terms of safeguarding this vital energy that will become the revolution.
This very forceful momentous energy is at the heart of the film and was the basis of the artistic choices at all levels. For me, this burst of energy will gradually contaminate the generation of adults, the city, etc.; though constantly confronted with attempts to stifle it. Everyone will try to tame this energy. Will this energy be ultimately crushed? This is the suspense of the film.
You mention the artistic choices. They are indeed striking, in the way of filming the concerts with Farah’s constant fluctuations.
Yes, the film has this energy that takes it to a final calm. In writing the script, I cut the scenes as short as possible, which gives this sense of energy. For the group, there could have been a fake band with perfect playback, but I wanted to capture that live energy, perhaps with off-key notes and a bit on the rough side. We dialogued a great deal with the cinematographer and musician regarding the rehearsal and concert scenes.
You’re not a musician though the music and songs have an important place in the film. What was your experience in this context?
It was the big challenge of the film! The music is very relevant: a song can spread very quickly without the authorities able to control it. I wrote suggestive texts, with emotional color for each song, and during the preparation stage, I went to see a friend, Ghassen Amami, who writes beautiful lyrics in Tunisian. Some were written in one setting and others after going back and forth. For the musicians, I wanted an electric rock band with electric oud, but that would be an acoustic mix of rock and electronic music with the energy of popular traditional Tunisian music, of mezoued (1), of mensiettes (2), etc. I met a lot of musicians but only through a chance encounter I was able to find Khyam Allami who is Syrian and has lived a bit in Tunisia. He is an oud virtuoso but also has the rock band, Alif Ensemble. We shared the same interest in grouping influences within the same momentum. He put himself into the skin of a young Tunisian of 2010 and it was very productive. He wrote the music, especially for the voice of Baya Medhaffar who played the role of Farah, he helped me during the casting, worked with the musicians at rehearsals, was present during the shooting of the music scenes, ensured that the performances took place live, was there during the sound mixing, etc. And as he is someone very competent technically, it was a huge contribution.
The casting must have been difficult to find musician-actors or actor-musicians!
In fact, there are no real actors in the film: they have no professional experience. For the role of Farah, I met with a lot of people; I wanted a young person who could sing. Baya Medhaffar had graduated just before the shooting. She supported the project totally, sang well, and with eyes that sparkle, had this zeal for life. I tested her a lot and she did everything to get the part, going as far as taking me to the bars and playing the role of Farah! In real life she is close to the character and the problem was mainly to work on the differences. Once Farah was found, we followed the same course for the rest of the casting. Ines, the other girl in the group played by Deena Abdelwahed, I spotted at a concert and adapted the role, which was initially for a male character, in order to incorporate her. There were a lot of meetings: I did acting games but I also adjusted my characters. It was necessary for them to really live within the film.
Did having a non-professional team require a lot of rehearsals and takes?
There was already very meticulous work on the selection of people, and a reading of the text alone with each one. The film is very carefully written but we worked on the improvisations right in the heart of the scenes. While they acted, I took the words and rewrote the scenario with their words and gave the text back to them; they were supposed to learn it but this was a dialogue very close to them, very familiar. While shooting, cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert, with whom we had already shot Zakaria, was very flexible and set up the lighting and framing in a manner that would allow the space for discovery. I could let them experience the scenes: we adapted to each other and from one shot to another, down to the smallest detail. After a few run-throughs we found the right approach and after many retakes we found the right balance. A lightness and naturalness often came at the end of this work.
Were the camera angles, shots, etc. developed gradually during the rehearsals or did you story-board the scenes with a precise idea in mind?
I made a pretty accurate overall shooting script, which is partially in the film, including the places and characters, but I stayed very open during the filming to adapt according to what was working and what was not. The powerful shots were found during the shooting, others were created based on the architecture of the apartment, using the hall, for example, to designate perspective. In the transportation terminal, I had axis points in mind but it did not always work: during the shooting there is a certain exploration based on the interaction between the characters.
Was it a big change from short to feature film?
The temporality of the short is a bit strange: when considering the waiting time, it takes almost as much time as a feature film. Considering the work involved, the intensity of the feature is more just. I always tended towards the feature: there is a dimension that suits me better. I am perhaps a bit chatty! The crew was larger, but in order to maintain a certain agility I did not want it too big, especially in the interior locations.
Precisely, on the question of temporality, the film is built on accelerations followed by breaks where the subtlety of the characters could find its richness. Had you thought about the film in this way?
There was this overall movement from the start, and very lively moments in the script; but there were also long sequences where things evolved quite a bit. It was not done completely consciously: it was in relationship to the story but also to Tunis, which is a city where things develop in episodes.
The film revolves around a series of betrayals that respond to each other, which allows for this dramatic structure: was it the central theme?
Perhaps. The theme is about all that keeps the momentum of life from thriving. But I especially wanted to emphasize the notion of surveillance: at the same time protection, impediment, obstacle, either within the family or group. It is this ambiguity that I wanted to bring out. I thought of Farah as a metaphor of the country and she ends up in the hands of the police: this surveillance and this police presence prevent Tunisia from succeeding, despite its desire for freedom.
The end of the film is open-ended but this articulation between betrayal and surveillance is indicative of your point of view: you embrace the radicalism of the character at the start but then lead her to grapple with difficult situations.
Yes, the film retracts in the end to something very personal: the acceptance of what one is. In concentric circles, it starts in the intimate, and widens gradually, then closes because these circles reproduce each other. Coming to terms with the past will allow one to continue. The police, they are us, ourselves, our self-censorship. This is why I humanized the characters of the police officers who expose themselves. One must resolve one’s own problem with oneself.
This means reconciliation with oneself…
Yes, I did not want to enter into a Manichaeism: it was important for me to show that everyone was a bit stuck. I thought a lot about the past of each character so that they would have this solidity between the said and the unsaid. It was necessary that each character carry a complexity and humanity, torn between opposites. Only Farah is carried by her desire for life and she goes for it.
Is this what moves you to cinema, this desire to restore this complexity?
What moves me to cinema is to tell stories and give emotion, but it’s true that there was something too simple in this revolution: I wanted to partake in a travail de mémoire (memory work) of the atmosphere, attitudes, fear and paranoia, and to show how everything was interwoven and complex, and how everyone was trapped.
In today’s Tunisia, does this take on a social and political function?
It is true that we are in a somewhat Manichean period, between the positive and the negative. It was very important for me to stay in this period of the summer of 2010, followed by five years of moments of hope and despair. If we could just draw a picture of 2010, it could illuminate the present, because one must resolve-which the film shows-the past to face the future. We have a tendency towards amnesia in Tunisia: one is pushed towards the future and that’s good, but that which caused this revolution are elements that are still valid today.
The black maid is an extremely positive character but is related to the stereotype of the domestic…
The character Ahlem, which means « dreams » in Arabic is actually positive: she brings humor and lightness while living a very hard life. She was not black in the script, but when I chose the leading actress, Baya Medhaffar, I had already spent a lot of time at her house where I met the maid, Najoua Mathlouthi, whom I found very beautiful, very earnest and who had a great relationship with Baya, which corresponded to what I wanted in the film. It was her class that set her apart from those I had in the casting calls. I struggled a bit to integrate her into the production because she could not read. But she used many proverbs that enriched the role. She seized the story and the place she held within it. She is Tunisian but she is also black: that is a reality. I decided not to deal with this in and of itself.
When working in the world of cinema does being the daughter of Nouri Bouzid present challenges?
There are advantages and inconveniences. At the present it is calm for me, we have an interesting dialogue. He’s my father: there is a transmission without my knowing how to specify it exactly. He has a strong personality: it is not easy to not be in his shadow. I went to France to do my studies in order to construct my own gaze. My cinema is my gaze. One can clearly see the differences and what constitutes my cinema in its own right. I separated from him in all stages of the film. He accepted it here although it was more difficult during the film school shorts. Afterwards, Zakaria was made very far from him. By coincidence, the screening at the Carthage Film Festival took place on his birthday!
When I decided to go into cinema when I was quite young, I knew from my father the challenges of each film, even if one is known and respected like him. I saw how much he worked. And I knew that one does not make a feature at thirty years old, without stars, and in Arabic, without it being a lot of work!

1. Mezoued: Traditional bagpipes, widespread in Tunisia but also in Algeria and Libya. It is by metonymy, a form of Tunisian popular music.
2. Mensiettes: women’s chants of Kef (a municipality in Northwestern Tunisia whose principal town is of the same name).
Translation by Beti Ellerson
Partnership with [African Women in Cinema Blog]///Article N° : 13400

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