Although I’ve seen at least a half-dozen documentaries on the Arab Spring, none of them conveys the outrage against human dignity and freedom that led to the revolt better than the narrative film “As I Open My Eyes” that opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema today.
Set in Tunisia in 2010, Leyla Bouzid’s characters are educated and middle-class but it is easy to extrapolate from their privileged frustration what made street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolate himself in December of that year.
The main character is an 18-year old female named Farah (Baya Medhaffar) who lives in a large and comfortable apartment in Tunis with her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) who is elated by the news that her daughter has been accepted into medical school. Her father Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi) works as a mining foreman in a distant city only because a job closer to home would necessitate joining the party of dictator Ben Ali, an act that would compromise his principles and self-esteem.
Farah’s main interest, however, is performing in night clubs as the lead singer of a rock band that is an eclectic mix of traditional harmonies and hard rock using both electric guitars and the oud, a string instrument that has been around for 5000 years. And most importantly, they are protest musicians singing about the country’s inequities. Since a large part of the film consists of them in performance, it is a little bit like a musical drama. The music was composed by Iraqi Khyam Allami and the lyrics were written by the Tunisian writer Ghassan Amami.
Like all young people, Farah values her independence and freedom more than anything. After a neighbor connected to Ben Ali’s party warns her mother that her daughter is looking for trouble, she orders her to stop performing and focus on medical school. When Farah insists that she is obligated to sing with the band in an upcoming major gig, her mother says no. On the night of the gig, Farah locks her mother in her bedroom and joins the musicians in a rousing performance that like all others recently has attracted undercover cops keeping an eye on opposition to the dictatorship.
As might be expected, her rebellion antagonizes her mother to the point of sending her off to live with relatives far from the temptations of Tunis. After the two arrive at a bus depot, Farah walks off for a minute but does not reappear. Perhaps she has decided to stay in Tunis and continue rebelling against her mother and Tunisia’s injustices? Her mother and her band members discover the awful truth a day later. She was picked up by the cops and interrogated harshly. They wanted to know who wrote the lyrics for their signature song “As I Open My Eyes”. They taunt her. Why hesitate from naming names? One of your band members is already working for us.
Her travails reflect the contradictions that led young middle-class people to join the Jasmine Revolution that was the opening salvo of the Arab Spring. Her experience was a variation on what director Leyla Bouzid experienced. She ran a cine-club with friends, one of whom they eventually learned was a police informant.
In the press notes, Bouzid describes her take on Tunisian events over the past five years. Her words sound as if they were lifted from Gilbert Achar’s “Morbid Symptoms”, an account of the impasse facing young revolutionaries in the region:
When the revolution happened, the desire was very strong to film and represent it. Many documentaries were shot then, all full of hope, all focused on the future. I, too, really wanted to film. Not the revolution, but what everyone had lived through and been subjected to: the suffocating everyday life, the total power of the police, the surveillance, the fear and paranoia of the Tunisian people over the past 23 years.
The revolution (or revolts, points of view are divergent) surprised the entire world, but it didn’t come from nowhere. We couldn’t just all of a sudden sweep away decades of dictatorship and turn towards the future without examining the past. For me it was obvious that we had to quickly review the past while the tide of freedom continued to flow.
Like most Tunisians, my euphoria was strong at first, followed by successive phases of enchantment and disenchantment. For the film, I didn’t want the range of emotions linked to ongoing events to influence me. My only guide was trying to consistently follow the emotional journey traveled by the characters during the historical period being told. The goal was to be as accurate as possible in a work of fiction anchored in a specific historical context.
“As I Open My Eyes” is certain to be one of my picks for best foreign films of 2016. Not only is it gripping drama; it is a psychologically and socially complex look at Tunisian realities. Furthermore, it is implicitly a commentary on the difficulties of social change in this period of history when the ideals of young progressive-minded people is thwarted by objective conditions that evoke Marx’s observation in the 18th Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Also opening today at the Paris Theater and Angelika Film Center in NY is “Come What May”, a French film directed by Christian Carion whose 2005 film “Joyeux Noël” dramatized the fraternization of English, French and German troops on Christmas Eve, December 1914. Like that film, his latest involves men at war but in much grimmer circumstances. It recounts the migration of more than a million Frenchmen from the north of the country toward the south in May 1940 to flee the invading Nazis.
This event resonated deeply with Carion whose mother took part in this migration.
The film begins in Germany as single dad Hans (August Diehl) is about to sit down with his young son Max (Joshio Marlon) for breakfast. As they make small talk, the phone rings. It is Hans’s comrade warning him that the Gestapo is on its way to arrest him. Since Hans is a Communist, he indeed has reasons to worry.
In the next scene, we see Hans and Max working on a farm in northern France owned by Paul, the village’s mayor. When we discover that Paul has named one of his draft horses Hitler, we become worried about the father and son who have told him that they were Belgians. (Germans aroused suspicions, whatever their ideology.) We become relieved when Paul informs them that the horse got that name because it was so troublesome, always looking for fights with the other horses.
When the local cops discover that Hans lacks proper documents, they haul him off to jail in a nearby city. While he is there, word comes down that the village must evacuate. The villagers put everything they can carry into horse-drawn carts and head out on the open road. This leaves Max in the care of Paul, his wife and Max’s schoolteacher who rides ahead of the column as a scout, exactly the role that Carion’s mother played in 1940.
Meanwhile, as the Nazis storm into the city where Hans is jailed, the cops release him and the other prisoners in the ensuing melee. When the British troops stationed there fight a rear guard action against the Nazis, Hans runs into a Scottish officer who has lost all his outnumbered men in gun battles. With him in tow, they head off to Paul’s village where they hope to meet up with Max and the friends he has made there. Upon arriving, Hans sees Max’s message to him on the school blackboard telling him that he is okay and hopes to be rejoined with him. From that point on, the film combines the human drama of father and son seeking to be together again with the social drama of French villagers trying to stay alive. In one scene, German fighter planes fire on them mostly out of the same genocidal imperatives Russian bombers follow when they fly over East Aleppo. As I mentioned in my review of “Sharps War” yesterday, this kind of war crime occurred with some regularity as seen in the documentary.
Despite the grim subject matter, the film has a pastoral quality as the villagers sleep in the open air and walk down roads that look like they were lifted from a Renoir landscape. In the press notes, Carion states: “My mother told me that the weather that month was the best she’d ever seen. It was the hottest month of the 20th century. They slept out under the stars. My mother was a scout on her bicycle, like the teacher in the film. Just like her, my mother didn’t always reveal what she had seen. The world was turned on its head. But for someone aged 14 at the time, it must have been amazing. I always tried to keep in mind that vital energy, which guided us during the writing of the film.”
An essay on the historical context of the French Exodus by Oliver Wieviorka appears in the press notes. Wieviorka is a specialist on WWII and the French Resistance whose paternal grandparents were Polish Jews that were arrested in Nice during World War II and died at Auschwitz. He writes:
The Exodus remains a paradoxical phenomenon. For many, it was a terrible trial, but for others, it represented adventure or first love. It often revealed the realities of war and the terrible things one learns in a country at war, but sometimes it meant the discovery of solidarity and new horizons for people who previously had never left the confines of their village. Above all, it forced individuals to choose. Some submitted to the fatality of defeat, trusting a veteran marshal with their fate. Others, however, refused to believe the propaganda, flocking to enlist in unprecedented numbers with the Resistance or with General de Gaulle’s Free French. As such, the experience of setting out on the road was, to a large extent, a decisive factor in people’s subsequent fates, inspiring some to give in, and others to stand up and be counted. Lastly, and perhaps above all, the Exodus reflects the total collapse – both politically and militarily – of a country that had, until that point, believed itself to be invincible. This perhaps explains why this event is still largely absent from the national memory. However, millions of French people’s memories still bear a wound that continues to bleed today.
“Come What May” is a beautiful film with a film score by the legendary Ennio Morricone that has the same mixture of awe and horror as “Night of the Shooting Stars”. It is a reminder of the plight of refugees during warfare, a subject that is unfortunately as timely today as it was in 1940.
Scheduled to be screened at the upcoming NY Film Festival and set for general release on December 16th, “Neruda” is a brilliant work of art that would likely come crashing to earth if too much analysis was invested into trying to understand the point of the film.
Although based on real characters, they function much more as symbols in a drama that pits a world-renowned Communist poet and Senator against the chief of police in Chile in 1948 as the cold war kicks in. Neruda, who is played brilliantly by Luis Gnecco, is a bourgeois libertine who has taken up the cause of the working class despite his distance from their lives. In one memorable scene, he is approached by a working class woman in a party thrown by the CP who professes love of his poetry despite his inability to really understand what her life is like.
When Chile’s president Gabriel Videla orders the cops to round up CP’ers, including Neruda, he puts the top cop Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, who played Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries”) on the case. Peluchonneau is ambivalent about Neruda. To prove his mettle as top cop, he is anxious to track him down but he also admires his poetry. When Neruda discovers that he is on his trail, he leaves traces of his writing behind for the detective to ponder.
Since director Pablo Larrain made “No”, a film in which Gael García Bernal played an adman who works behind the scenes to assist leftists organizing a no vote against Pinochet staying in power, there is little doubt about his politics. While he certainly could have made a film about the earlier generation’s resistance to the Pinochet of their day, he chose instead to make a film about the role of the radical artist in bourgeois society with Peluchonneau serving as a kind of perverse muse to Neruda who becomes enraptured by the idea of living on the lam.
If Larrain had chosen to make the kind of film I would have made, he would have spent much more time exploring the relationship between Neruda and the dictator Videla. It turns out that Neruda was Videla’s campaign manager in 1946 in accord with the CP and other left groups backing of the bourgeois politician. Once or twice, this misguided political strategy is brought up in the film but only as background.
Despite my obvious preference for the kind of films that Gillo Pontecorvo made, I found “Neruda” totally captivating and recommend it without qualification. The dialog is witty, the performances are great and the cinematography stunning.