In Cinemas

Under the Fig Trees review – sensitive and eloquent filmmaking from Tunisia

Sun-dappled naturalism shines through in this sweet and relaxed fiction feature debut from documentary filmmaker Erige Sehiri

There’s a gentleness and sweetness at the centre of Under the Fig Trees, the first fictional feature by documentarian Erige Sehiri, befitting of its loose and semi-improvised style. It has its rougher edges for sure, but ultimately this sweetness is precisely what gives it an impact, much like the titular fruit that our characters are picking.

The film takes place across a working day at a fig orchard, somewhere in the countryside in Tunisia. In the dawn light, a truck picks up men and women, young and old, from the village, and takes them to the orchard. Quickly, we’re introduced to our cast of characters, drawn from non-professional actors. Most are given a few basic archetypes and backstories, and then let loose in the orchard. There’s the manipulative boss, with an ear for sweet-talking the young ladies; the heartbroken teenage lover who stumbles upon her ex, also working the orchard that day (he left the village after his parents died, and is back only for a bit of extra money); there’s the frustrated young man who longs for a better life outside of the village; and the rebellious, sexually knowledgeable young women who gradually emerges as perhaps the most dominant figure in the workplace.

What emerges through these storylines is a small panoply of womanhood and workplace gender politics in the Tunisian countryside. Sehiri opts to largely forgo any stories about the middle-aged and elderly figures at work. They’re sidelined in favour of the youngsters, but importantly they’re also sidelined by the characters themselves: by the boss (who sees no reason to try and manipulate them) and by the youngsters who seem to envelop themselves in gossip and bickering.

But this gossip is revealing. Improvised or not, Sehiri and her actors find ways to keep these conversations compelling. All these characters are essentially looking for ways to express their being in the world, through the reasonably limited and socially conservative constraints of rural Tunisia, with romance and work constantly playing off each other. If it occasionally feels a bit contrived, Under the Fig Trees pushes through, principally because the wheels are always turning, always shifting to another point-of-view. Alcarras, another naturalistic non-English language film about farming to have reached these shores this year was, by contrast, dramatically inert and devoid of perspective.

Crucially, Under the Fig Trees is interested in the interior lives of its protagonists, particularly evident in its cinematography. Sehiri and DoP Frida Marzouk have a wonderful knack for capturing faces, be they angry, frustrated, bored, smiling, tired, horny or hungry, with much of the film shot in close-up, only occasionally panning back for the wider orchard. Yet it doesn’t feel claustrophobic, the bucolic light seemingly freeing our characters to let their minds wander. As the day passes, the light changes, the afternoon seemingly heavier and sweatier, more angry. Yet it never boils over – this is just another day at work. This is sensitive, eloquent filmmaking.

Under the Fig Trees is released in UK cinemas on 19 May.

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