As I Open My Eyes takes place in 2010 just before Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, which ignited the Arab Spring. It follows the story of Farah (Baya Medhaffer), a spirited 18-year-old Tunisian singer whose band performs songs protesting the oppressive government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Like, Farah, I’ve taken part in protest. But unlike Farah, I’ve done this in the United States. In 2004, I made my main stage debut as an actor in my college’s production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. But this was no ordinary production. Using a new version of this Greek tragedy, which included a fair amount of foul language, we changed the setting to the Middle East as a protest to the war in Iraq. Did I mention that I went to college in the Midwest? As you can imagine, this production did not sit well with everyone. But it was cool, because we were in America, where we have freedom of speech. If we are against something, we are free to speak out against it. It’s one of our basic rights. Is that not a basic human right?
In the opening scene of As I Open My Eyes, we see Farah and Bohrène (Montassar Ayari) staring into each other’s eyes. He is the handsome, older songwriter for the Tunisian band. Romance quickly develops. Between the romance, the political performances and partying, Farah’s mother, Hayet (Ghalia Benali, Swing), disapproves of her daughter’s behavior; that is not how ladies should behave, especially in public. However, this just fuels Farah’s rebellion and pushes her even closer to Bohrène. Their relationship grows until Bohrène suddenly dumps Farah, leaving her devastated. Typical.
Farah is a strong-willed, independent young woman…just like her mother, Hayet. Once a rebellious youth herself, Hayet has seen what can happen to an outspoken young political activist and is trying to save her daughter the trouble and turmoil she experienced. Only Farah doesn’t see that; all she sees is the overbearing and overprotective woman her mother has become. The conflict between the two escalates until Hayet tells Farah to never talk to her again, that she doesn’t exist, she’s dead. The next scene shows Farah and Hayet eating a meal…in complete silence. Ouch.
Despite all the warnings to be careful and stop being so vocal about her political beliefs, Farah continues to sing in public. She is loud and proud. When the venues are shut down and the gigs canceled, Farah takes to singing the band’s politically charged songs acapella in the street. Farah’s bold actions attracts some unwanted attention, and she finds herself abducted and held for days as she is aggressively interrogated. The only reason she isn’t sent to prison or severely abused is her mother has a connection.
And that is where the film made me check my privilege. Until that point, I felt I could really relate to Farah; we both studied science in school but have a passion for performing arts, we both had a strained relationship with our mothers as teens, our dads weren’t around much, we get involved with the wrong type of boys, we’re both fiercely independent and not afraid to speak our minds. The big difference though is that my life has never been on the line due to me speaking out about my opinions.
As she opens her eyes, Farah sees that the world is harsh. Boys are dumb and can’t be trusted. And the dangers of speaking out against the government are very real. But throughout and in the end, it’s her mother who is there, holding her and loving her.
Being part of that 2004 production of The Trojan Women was a life-changing experience for me. I learned the power of art and the power of the human voice. By taking a stand and speaking out, we were able to send a clear message, and not everybody liked or agreed with it. But that was okay because we have the right to speak our minds in America. To know that not everybody has the right of free speech makes me feel even more obligated to speak up and take a stand when I see injustice. For as Theodore Roosevelt said, “The best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing.”