A beguiling watch that centres human connection in its commentary on agricultural workers in Tunisia - Erige Sehiri’s Under The Fig Trees
Monday 5 June 2023, by
Under the Fig Trees opens in rural Tunisia; we see a glorious blue sky streaked with hues of reddish yellow. It is the dawn of a new day, but it is also an immediate introduction to a key theme of the film - freedom. The camera slowly brings us to a group of women standing together by the side of a road, shortly after revealing a few men loitering nearby. The order is deliberate; while Under the Fig Trees centres on the lives of Tunisian harvesters, it gravitates towards the female experience overall. Throughout the film the camera showers us with close-up shots of their faces with such frequency and intimacy that the viewer often feels they are standing beside the women in their confidence. We catch every smile, every giggle and every soft look exchanged, all framed with golden rays of sunshine, at times this effect is almost halo-like.
When a dilapidated pick-up truck appears and the group is crammed into the back inelegantly, one young lady makes her way to the front of the car. Her name is Fidé (Fidé Fdhili), clad in double denim and a loose red scarf, she is the most outspoken and fearless of the workers. The swaggering foreman, who wears rip-off Armani and his cap backwards, is sweet on her and affords her privileges like sitting in the passenger seat on their way to the orchard. His indiscreet flirting reveals a general weakness for women and a willingness to leverage his position to his advantage. Fidé takes advantage of this crush but is not taken in by his charms, revealing a strong cynicism towards romance and love in later conversations with female workers. Her previous disappointments have steeled her, and she warns women around her to focus on the betterment of their own lives rather than love and marriage. While her advice is sound, it seems to fall on deaf ears. Melek (Feten Fdhili), her sister, swoons over the sudden reappearance of her first love, Abdou, after a five-year disappearance and another worker, Sana (Ameni Fdhili), chats away excitedly about her love interest Firas, dreaming of their future together. Interestingly, through Sana, we see a playing of expectations around gender norms. In this case, it is the female character that desires a more conservative partner, and it is her that becomes easily jealous, confronting Fidé for flirting with Firas (Firas Amri).
The film also touches on duality through its setting. Despite being filmed almost entirely outdoors, in an orchard without fences or walls, there is a strong sense of enclosure. The tree branches slowly start to morph into bars of a prison cell, the tree canopy becoming a ceiling separating the workers from the freedom offered by a boundless sky. The filming is deliberate, there aren’t the regular wide expansive shots as expected of a setting like this, rather we are kept underneath the trees, forced to become intimately acquainted with the daily lives of harvesters under the relentless bright sun.
Alongside the shining sun and vivid green leaves, there are furtive moments and conversations taking place in the solitude of the trees. A worker steals figs, their way of fighting against a system of exploitation and injustice. The foreman harasses a lone female worker, accusing her of seduction when she walks past him. There is a family dispute over land and inheritance. The fig farm is a microcosm of society. There are the young and the old. There is life and death, there is crime and punishment, there is trust and betrayal, love and anger and solidarity and frustration, but there is also hope. As the working day comes to an end, the women do their makeup and rearrange their clothes excitedly, the closeness of the camera infects the viewer with the same energy. There is a sense of liberation when they climb onto the pick-up truck again and begin to sing together. Looking closely, the workers are clearly tired after a long day of working, but they sing energetically and joyfully. The lyrics are not accessible to the audience, but as intended, the cheeky smiles give away that the song is not as innocent as one might initially assume.
Erige Sehiri, the French-Tunisian director, had previously only made documentaries. This first foray into fictional features reveals that keen naturalism through a non-professional cast, sole use of natural lighting, and a relatively low-key plotline. Sehiri also brings touches of authenticity to her work through details like the red scarf that Fidé wears, originally belonging to Sehiri’s grandmother, and an openness to improvisation. One of the most moving moments in the film is when an elderly man tries to calm Fidé down after her angry rant. He scolds her for speaking the way she does and defends the men of Tunisia that fought for independence. He says every word with heartfelt sincerity as he does not realise he has stumbled upon a crew filming a scene.
Sehiri notes in an interview that she didn’t intentionally write a positive film, but rather wanted to depict how the workers maintain positive attitudes and live life as much as they can despite their circumstances. This ties into the sense of solidarity that exists between the workers. The way Sana and Fidé talk to each other and share food over lunch break despite an explosive argument is indicative of their care for each other, and willingness to work past obstacles. There is no room for petty grudges, only a resolution to continue driving forward. Indeed, the journey to and from the orchard which bookends the film both heightens the sense of being stuck and adequately symbolises how all the workers are in the same situation, all in the same ‘truck’. With the old and young side by side, one can easily see how the young, denied opportunities, could continue to pick figs for years to come. There is a message here, that despite the Instagram selfies and relatable discussions about life and love, young people in rural areas like Kesra, Tunisia lack the same opportunities as people elsewhere. Once hailed as a success story following the Arab Spring, Tunisia now faces both political and economic instability, making it harder for the youth.
Overall, Under the Fig Trees is a beguiling watch that centres human connection in its commentary on agricultural workers in Tunisia. As a fictional debut, Sehiri has firmly established her ability to balance depicting reality with nuanced storytelling.