Under the Fig Trees: a loose, naturalistic day in the life of Tunisian fruit pickers

Fig pickers flirt, conspire and exchange snatches of gossip while toiling in the gorgeous Tunisian sunlight in Erige Sehiri’s slow-burning feature debut.

Abdelhak Mrabti as Abdou, Feten Fdhili as Melek in Under the Fig Trees (2021)
Abdelhak Mrabti as Abdou, Feten Fdhili as Melek in Under the Fig Trees (2021)Courtesy of Modern Films

Erige Sehiri has adopted a deceptively simple structure for her debut narrative feature Under the Fig Trees. The film opens as the day breaks, with a small band of agricultural workers standing by the side of the road, waiting for their ride to work, and closes with the return journey. In between these commutes we spend a day in the orchard, where these people collect figs; we watch them work, listen to them talk, and gain a brief window into their lives.

The first words we hear in the film are “She took everything and left,” and while this stray comment doesn’t mean anything in the overall scheme of the movie – it’s just two women sharing a bit of village gossip – it does set us up for the film’s tendency to happen upon conversations in medias res and let us hear just a little of what’s being said before moving on. These snatches of talk suggest lives and relationships that exist beyond the confines of what we see on screen.

Sehiri co-wrote the screenplay with Peggy Hamann and Ghalya Lacroix, who also co-edited the film, and whose collaborations with Abdellatif Kechiche (from Games of Love and Chance, 2003, to Mektoub, My Love, 2017) have a similarly loose, naturalistic feel. Together, they quickly establish a handful of key characters and relationships, between which the film then drifts freely over the course of the day. Seventeen-year-old Melek (Feten Fdhili) is surprised to find herself working alongside Abdou (Abdelhak Mrabti), the old flame her heart still aches for. Abdou has returned to this region, after a long absence and following the death of his parents, to lay claim to the land now owned by his estranged uncle, the very land that is being harvested in this film. Meanwhile, Sana (Ameni Fdhili) is devoted to her boyfriend Firas (Firas Amri), but he doesn’t display the same level of commitment towards her, seeming more focused on the figs that he can stash away and sell for his own profit.

The details of these mini-dramas are gradually revealed to us as we listen to the characters talk, with the conversation in Under the Fig Trees ranging from the banal to the perceptive. We hear titbits of scandal and gain an insight into the delicacy required when plucking figs (“Breaking a branch is like breaking an arm,” a new employee is warned), but when the workers gather to operate in pairs they reveal more of themselves. Often these conversations have a hushed, covert quality, as co-workers huddle together beneath the trees, avoiding the suspicious gaze of the foreman Gaith (Gaith Mendassi).

The conditions and power dynamics of labour are a keen area of interest for Sehiri, who has a background in journalism, and whose documentary Railway Men (2018) explored the parlous state of Tunisia’s rail network through the experiences of those who work on its lines every day. In Under the Fig Trees, she maintains a documentarian’s eye on this milieu, and cinematographer Frida Marzouk makes us feel like eavesdroppers with the way she shoots her subjects in tight close-ups, the shadows of the branches flickering across their faces as they are bathed in the gorgeous Tunisian sunlight. Marzouk’s ability to utilise natural light is one of the film’s marvels.

Fide Fdhili as Fide in Under the Fig Trees (2021)
Fide Fdhili as Fide in Under the Fig Trees (2021)Courtesy of Modern Films

The opening shot is of a character silhouetted against the dim glow of the dawning sun, and the film is gradually illuminated by the growing daylight as the hours slip by, with Marzouk occasionally swapping her intimate approach for wide shots that allow us to orient these characters in place and time. The way Sehiri and Marzouk compress the span of a day into 90 minutes and allow us to get a sense of the characters’ bucolic surroundings is sometimes reminiscent of Bertrand Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country (1984).

Sehiri has assembled a cast of non-professional actors for this film and she found a number among them who have beautifully expressive faces – notably Feten Fdhili, whose large eyes make the meek and sensitive Melek’s heartfelt yearning for love so tangible. She is frequently paired with Fide (Fide Fdhili), and while these two young women are a study in contrasts in terms of their personalities and the way they present themselves, there is a tangible desire among both for something more from life than this rural region can offer them.

Like any girls their age, they have mobile phones and Instagram accounts that give them a view of a world and a life that lies out of reach, and they both appear to be drawn to Abdou, whose return from years living in a more metropolitan area has imbued him with a degree of glamour.

However, while Melek moons over her lost love, Fide scoffs at the traditional views of love and marriage espoused by her and Sana. “Men aren’t everything,” she says. “Love is bogus.” Fide has a gently flirtatious relationship with her boss (who later attempts to assault Melek, in the film’s sole moment of genuine threat), earning a ride in the front of the truck while everyone else is crammed into the rear, but she maintains all relationships on her terms, and she cuts a strikingly distinctive figure among her fellow female workers with her long, tousled hair often falling uncovered. Under the Fig Trees began life when Sehiri met Fide Fdhili and began to develop a screenplay around her, and it’s not hard to see why she was so taken by this charismatic young woman.

Fide’s independence and self-possession must seem alien to the older generation of women who work alongside her at the orchard. Sehiri’s chief focus in Under the Fig Trees is on her younger characters, but she also gives space to these senior figures. In particular, she gives one of the film’s most resonant moments to a veteran worker called Leila (Leila Ouhebi), who recalls a man she loved in her youth but was forbidden to marry. She still holds a candle for him and even harbours a desire to be buried with him, and as she sings a lamentation, she breaks down and weeps. What are the younger women thinking as they listen to Leila’s memories? Will they be free to choose their own path, or are they destined to tell a similar story in years to come?

That sense of uncertainty reflects the mood of the country in which Under the Fig Trees was produced. It has been more than a decade since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by the popular protest that sparked the Arab Spring, ending his 23-year rule; but the years that have followed have been defined by political instability and economic hardship.

Sehiri ends her film with an image of solidarity, with the workers again climbing into the back of Gaith’s van and singing and laughing as dusk begins to fall; but with Tunisia sliding back towards authoritarianism under Kais Saied, what the future holds for the young Tunisians portrayed in this film is anyone’s guess. All they can do is take things one day at a time.

► Under the Fig Trees is in UK cinemas from 19 May.