The rebellious 18-year-old at the center of "As I Open My Eyes" has no interest in her family's medical-school plans for her — she wants only to sing with her band. It's hardly a novel setup for a coming-of-age movie, but Farah's story is also one of political ferment; it unfolds in 2010 Tunisia, during the months before the North African country's Jasmine Revolution would catalyze the Arab Spring.
Baya Medhaffar inhabits the role of Farah with a blazing exuberance that's matched by a dynamic sense of place. Director Leyla Bouzid may struggle to shape her narrative in the final reels, but through most of its running time her first feature pulses with in-the-moment vitality. Whether on night trains, in Tunis bars or in the arid landscape of phosphate mines, cinematographer Sebastien Goepfert's documentary-style camerawork is alive to the clash of repression and protest.
Bouzid and co-writer Marie-Sophie Chambon weave that clash into Farah's conflict with her protective mother (singer Ghalia Benali), dramatizing how state surveillance pervades everyone's lives. Farah has to sneak kisses with her boyfriend (Montassar Ayari), the band's oud player, but together they take real risks with their songs of social commentary and dissent.
One of the best things about Bouzid's film is that she gives us whole songs, written for the movie and recorded live. In tiny clubs packed with rapt audiences, the mournful punk melodies by Iraqi musician Khyam Allami and the hard-hitting poetry of Ghassen Amami's lyrics have a spirited interpreter in Medhaffar's defiant Farah — doing what she must do, very much at her own peril.
'As I Open My Eyes'
In Arabic and French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena