Review: "Under the Fig Trees" by Erige Sehiri

A day in a Tunisian fruit orchard in the opening film of FESCAAAL32

Presented in world premiere at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs of the Cannes Film Festival 2022 and set to release in Italian theaters on March 23rd distributed by Trent Film, Under the Fig Trees is the third work, but the first fiction film after two documentaries, by the Franco-Tunisian director and producer Erige Sehiri

The opening film of the 32nd FESCAAAL takes place throughout the course of one day, from morning until evening, with unity of time and place in a fruit orchard in the northwest countryside of Tunisia where women and men of different ages, each with their own stories, relationships, and experiences, gather to pick figs in a call-to-work job. It is the end of summer and some girls will soon return to school. In the meantime, they experience a collective journey of friendship, complicity, emotional confrontations and contrasts, and difficult love affairs to manage, with disappointments. Other characters around them interact, starting with the boss who recruits laborers daily and is reluctant to pay fair compensation to those who work under the sun for long hours. 

The film follows and intertwines these two aspects: work and private life. Sehiri uses handheld camera as she delves into the intricacies of trees, branches, and paths to capture details and bring them to the forefront, in contact with the bodies she is filming, lingering gently on the gestures they make and on their faces, eyes, and hands, intent on performing the work precisely as well as expressing emotions and moods. In that natural environment, things happen in the sign of repetition, with ritual movements only interrupted by small, also ritual pauses, mid-day rest, and the return home with the girls putting on makeup and singing, leaving behind the weight of another day in the fields. 

Sehiri’s documentary experience is evident in her way of observing a working community, always discreetly, and the phases of a manual farming activity. While the dialogues explore the complexity and layering of social relationships between patriarchy, desires for a future to grow independently, conservative tensions, exploitation, the memories of older women, and the awareness of emancipating themselves from the constraints of most of the younger ones. 

Giuseppe Gariazzo
Film critic