Tunisian helmer Leyla Bouzid premiered her debut feature “As I Open My Eyes” at the Venice Film Festival, where it picked up the first of many subsequent awards on its travels through Toronto, Stockholm, Carthage and now Dubai, screening in the Muhr Features section. “Eyes” tells the story of a young Tunisian woman struggles against her family’s wishes to pursue a singing career just before the country’s Jasmine Revolution in 2010. She is the daughter of noted director Nouri Bouzid.
How complicated was the financing?
It was complicated, but it was also quite fast for a first feature, in Arabic, without a famous actor. It’s a co-production, France-Tunisia-Belgium-Emirates, so you have to find a lot of little funds, and we got lucky because people liked the screenplay. There was the problem that people were asking, “Why isn’t it about now, after the Revolution?,” but I was saying it’s very important to explain the past.
Did you feel pressure from Western funds to adapt your script to their tastes?
I didn’t feel pressure, but I felt they have ready-made ideas and cliches, and you have to fight against this. If you don’t do the thing they expect, you have to really explain it more, but it’s possible. We got good financing – the budget was €600,000 ($652,000), which is not a lot for a co-production where there is a large team. The d.o.p. and the editor are French, I’m a French resident, so it’s not really that much.
You gathered a very young technical team.
The d.o.p. Sebastien Goepfert and the editor Lilian Corbeille were with me in school, we made all our first films together. Goepfert was cameraman on “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” but “As I Open My Eyes” is the first time he was d.o.p. For the team I wanted all first-timers – it made a better film to have partners you know well, and who you worked with before. You put your whole heart into it, and the investment was much stronger with a d.o.p. who’s just starting.
On a political note, do you think that opportunities for young women have opened up since former president Ben Ali was brought down?
In Tunisia the problem is more about youth than men and women, because compared to other countries in the region, Tunisia is very open for women, even before the Revolution, and there have always been many strong women in Tunisian cinema. There was a period where there was a small threat to women’s freedom but this is OK now; for me what’s at stake is trusting the young generation. One issue here is being a woman, another is making a film if you’re under 30, and to include a lot of young people in the film, not just on the technical team but also the actors. This is a real problem today in many areas in Tunisia, and in cinema in particular people want a renewal, so you have to fight a bit to gain a trust that exudes confidence.
Do you think there is a divide in cinema between older, well-established directors, and a younger generation who has something different to say?
The older generation has their place, and this is good. The problem is that in Tunisia often first features are done by 45, 48, 50 year olds rather than 28 or 30. When I finished school, I decided it’s important to do a young film, with the energy of what’s happening now. Maybe in 20 years I’ll make very calm films about families, I don’t know (laughs). Maybe it’s my only energetic film, but I think we need this. It’s not against the older generation – I’m the daughter of one of the most famous Tunisian directors, so I don’t want to kill my father (laughs)! But we need this wave of young directors with their own way of looking at things. We miss films about teenagers, Arabic teenagers: what happened in our recent history came from youth energy, but we miss this in cinema. The problem is that the youth have no voice, as if the only voice now is terrorism. Yet something is happening, because there are a lot of first Arabic features from young people who are making a very different cinema, with very different voices. But financing has to follow. And festivals too, because in European festivals there aren’t many Arabic films, or African films. If they take a film from Palestine then they don’t take a film from Tunisia, because they think, “OK, this is the same area.” It’s not the same area! Yet you’re able to take four films from South America? So much is happening in the Arab world, and it’s really different: Morocco is so different from Tunisia, it’s so different from Algeria, from Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine. It needs to be about cinema!