Soundtrack to As I Open My Eyes marks a return to form in Arab film scores
The Arab world has a long history with musical films. Dating back to the inception of the Arab film industry in Cairo in the early 20th century, productions such as Mohammed Abdel Wahab’s El Warda El Baida, or Oum Kalthoum’s Fatma, and of course Farid El Atrash’s many masterpieces come to mind when thinking of memorable movie music.
But over the years, music in film has seemingly been shifted to the backburner. Ever so rarely does an Arabic film emerge with a soundtrack that is as meticulously and imaginatively well-produced as the film itself.
In this case it is Leyla Bouzid’s debut As I Open My Eyes, with an original soundtrack composed by the multifaceted musician, Khyam Allami.
Over the past few years, Allami has become known for his diversified musical portfolio including his record label, Nawa Recordings, his band Alif – whose album The Review wrote up some months ago – and his oud compositions as heard in his solo album Resonance/Dissonance.
As I Open My Eyes has received a staggering 25 awards since its world premiere in Venice in November, including Best Film at Dubai International Film Festival and Best Film Music at La Baule Festival of Cinema and Film Music.
Set in the months leading up to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in 2011, the film tells the story of 18-year-old Farah (played by newcomer Baya Medhaffer) and her politically-subversive punk rock band Joujma.
The plot unfolds as Farah, a talented student seemingly destined for medical school, performs in defiance of her mother (played wonderfully by singer and actress Ghalia Benali) and goes as far as locking her mother in the bedroom so she can escape to meet the band. After performances, Farah hangs out with her oud-playing boyfriend, Borhene, the band’s leader. But inevitably their subversive lyrics draws the attention of the police.
In an interview with The National soon after the release of the film in September, the director said: “I wanted to speak about youth and their energy.
“But what’s also important is the parents and their generation and to show the transferring of ideas.
“It’s a moment where everyone was involved in revolution ... everybody was in a moment where they felt resistance was more important than fear.”
This revolutionary spirit is captured masterfully in Allami’s soundtrack.
During a rehearsal in a friend’s garage, the band practises the song, Touir Ellil (Bird of the Night). The film scene resembles a real studio recording with the high-definition camera and sound quality.
The group delivers Ghassan Amami’s lyrics, framed by a bright red carpet: “Like the bird of night/ generation after generation I dream of a spark/ Which reddens the sky of a day / Which no one has ever seen.”
It’s not subtle but the reiteration of red both suggests and underlines the drama of the moment. This is precisely what good soundtracks are meant do: they add meaning to the shot that we are so intently watching.
When reading further into Amami’s lyrics, which were written before Allami’s music, it becomes clear that there is also something revolutionary about these song lyrics and their form. Both continue to evolve throughout the film, taking on a different meaning each time we hear them.
“For example, if you look at the difference between Touir Ellil, which was actually supposed to originally be the title of the film,” says Allami, “the difference between that lyrically and the punk rock song, Bladi [My Country], they have a totally different form – one is short with a very simple ending that keeps repeating and one starts with a particular opening but is very long and each time tries to say something else.”
There are few contemporary film soundtracks that warrant such close attention. Chief among them is Ahmad Abdalla’s Microphone, released in 2010, about the underground music scene in Alexandria; followed by Farsh wa Ghata (Rags and Tatters) in 2013, which despite its patchy narrative set around the Tahrir Square protests, features a subtle but brilliant score of Sufi and Moulid music.
Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s films (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) are set to pleasing scores, helped by her husband, composer, Khaled Mouzanar.
Allami commends Lebanese producer Zeid Hamdan for his musical contributions to Aida El Kashef’s short film, Hadouta Men Sag (A Tin Tale), in addition to the work of Sharif Sehnaoui.
However, there is something inspiringly creative about the idea of creating a fictional band that totally rocks – Joujma is the type of band that you want to hear perform a long time after the film concludes, not unlike other fictional ensembles including The Blues Brothers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, or the Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother Where Art Thou.
Made up of five amateur actors-musicians, Joujma succeeds in establishing a fresh, alt-rock sound with an instrumentation lead by the oud, with vocals, drums, a bass guitar, electronics and a mind boggling Theremin.
When listening to the oud-based, poetic albeit punky sound the band exudes, it’s easy to hear the influence of Allami’s band Alif at the forefront of the compositions.
In fact, Bouzid first met Allami after an Alif concert. When speaking to Allami about the film project, they discussed the possible musical influences of Joujma: “There is a very famous kind of Tunisian singing that comes from [the city of] El Kef called ‘El Mansiette’,” Allami said.
El Kef is where much of the popular folk music in Tunisia comes from and many famous Tunisian musicians and artists are from there.
“These are really phenomenal songs that have been passed around and people have learned them. They do these incredible vocal harmonies alongside a lot of percussions – I just fell in love with it.”
Other influences on Joujma’s sound are the many female artists that both Allami and Bouzid deeply admire, including Bjork, PJ Harvey, Kim Gordon, Stereolab, Patti Smith and Kamilya Jubran.
“We wanted to give Baya [the actress who plays Farah] an idea of how their music is so inspirational, what kind of energy they have, why they are so powerful, and why they captured so many people’s imagination,” says Allami.
Maha El Nabawi is a freelance journalist based in Cairo who writes on music and culture.
Updated: February 9, 2016 04:00 AM