One of the best films I’ve seen about the Arab spring is not a direct portrayal of a popular protest against a failing, repressive Arab government — the expected scene that stands for that once-optimistic time. In fact, there were no actual street demonstrations in the movie. And it centres around the central importance of creativity and expression for humanity.
Rather, ‘As I Open My Eyes’ by Leyla Bouzid shows us the atmospherics of the final months of the previous Tunisian regime. Through the story of a youth rock group treated as political enemies by the state, we see a Tunisia where the malevolent oppression of creativity and the criminalisation of youthfulness suffocated a generation that just wanted to be. With threats, spies, secret police, and finally harrowing abuse in prison, the government breaks the band apart because its music questioned the way things were. It was a state of control that was far too stifling.
Set in the summer of 2010, none of the rock group’s idealistic musicians could have actually imagined what would happen when in December that year, a 26 year-old fruit vendor, Mohammad Bu Azizi, set himself on fire to protest a corrupt police that confiscated his cart and humiliated him regularly in Sidi Bouzid. The outrage and anger that this inspired boiled into a national uprising — the Jasmine revolution — against the country’s President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Though he entrenched his rule over his 23-year reign, the widespread protests brought about his fall.
On its face, it might be difficult to see the linkage between the cast of characters in ‘As I Open My Eyes’ and Bouazizi’s desperate, sacrificial self-immolation. The fictional band Joujma resists censorship, firstly, and social conservatism to assert its right to creativity — the freedom of voice. Yet, as the band manager — who is revealed as a police informant — insists, they just a bunch of spoiled brats doing as they wish. He does not have their class status, which ultimately offers them some protection from the more violent impulses of the state. By contrast, Bu Azizi took his own life as a demand for dignity and the basic right to make a livelihood. Aren’t these higher order needs that creating art? Shouldn’t we be more accepting of limits on speech and expression?
While it may be more crucial for human survival to eat than to speak, we are fundamentally social beings with a deep-seated desire to share our thoughts, ideas and creations with others. For whatever reason, self-expression is essential to being a person, to having an identity, and allowing ourselves imagination. Perhaps this need to express is what makes us human. This is why the most gruelling punishment in prisons is solitary confinement. Prisoners removed from human contact struggle to maintain their sanity.
When repression takes the form of systematic restrictions, such as bans on art or content, people’s sense of being in the world is tragically contained. They can only exist as they are allowed. If we face strictures on our communication needs, and they keep us from speaking as we wish, we cannot truly feel complete. Life may go on, but it cannot be forgotten that inhibition leads to potential unrealised.
People who keep themselves tucked inside know that they could have been greater, and this manifests in unhappiness, regret and dissatisfaction, even if they have appear to have accepted their life’s path. The older characters in ‘As I Open My Eyes’ certainly have adjusted to the restrictions, and they wear their despair on their faces throughout the film. They are reminded of they hope they had in their youth, and how it has been lost.
People in a censorious society may be forced to reconcile themselves to this state of quiet as a bargain with reality. Their quality of life and security can be maintained as the prize for not being who they wish, or saying what they really feel.
While a harsh government may stay in place due to censorship, as Ben Ali relied upon regimes of silence for decades, the costs to society are paramount. If a people cannot explore their will to speak, to communicate, it is not just art that suffers, but all forms of innovation, from science to politics. It shows in the basic functioning of a government if people cannot voice complaints about it, and thus put pressure on it to improve. Corruption, arbitrary regulations and other practices of bad governance will simply stay in place, holding a country back.
The economy is also harmed when creativity is squelched. Not only will there be a lack of quality writing, music, films and other media that can spawn economic activity, but businesses in general cannot thrive if their employees persistently hold back their ideas, defer to senior co-workers and are trained to avoid thinking for themselves. Education, which is so vital to national development, cannot lead to the people’s self-realisation and improvement if students learn to hide themselves, to only repeat what they are told and are punished for free thinking.
The other problem with countries where people must bottle up their grievances is that their rage will build up like a pressure cooker. Free speech is a valve that prevents an explosion, a flurry of violent anger. Being able to protest is a release for such sentiments. Yet, desperate acts can also spark real change. Tunisia was so repressive in 2010 that Bu Azizi only found his voice by lighting himself on fire, and the flames inspired a nation.
Will Youmans is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.