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Female Filmmakers in Focus: Erige Sehiri on Under the Fig Trees

Erige Sehiri's sun-dappled drama "Under the Fig Trees," which explores the lives of different generations living in the Tunisian countryside, has taken a very long and winding road to reach audiences. It made its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival in September 2021, it later played during the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes in 2022 and the Toronto International Film Festival that September before making its U.S. premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival in October of that year. It was then selected as Tunisia's submission for Best International Film at the 95th Academy Awards. Cut to over a year later and the film has finally found its way to a wider release stateside through distributor Film Movement and a concurrent DVD release on February 13th. 

Writer-director-producer Sehiri attributes this long tail to the film's subdued, slice-of-life approach to filmmaking. Set over the course of one day, the film charts the everyday ups and downs of a crew of agriculture workers in a fig tree orchard. Nothing particularly happens in the traditional sense. There is no inciting incident. No grand trauma. However, over the course of this one non-eventful day we get a rich portrait of rural Tunisian society. Sehiri's remarkable discovery Fidé Fdhili, a real-life fruit picker, leads a cast of non-professional actors. The group consists of men and women of all ages, whose lives intersect in major and minor ways. As Carlos Aguilar put it in his 3-and-a-half star review, Sehiri's film is "far from a movie about people arduously toiling away, it’s an intricate microcosm where one can see gender and social dynamics at play, particularly in their capacity to shape how we love and befriend others."

Sehiri grew up in France but moved back to Tunisia during the revolution over a decade ago. She worked as a journalist before transitioning to film, beginning her career as a documentary filmmaker. Her segment in the anthology film "Family Albums," a collective film centering on themes around heritage and identity in the Arab world, focused on her father's social media addiction during the revolution. She made her feature documentary debut with "Railway Men" which examines the state of Tunisia's railways through the personal stories of two workers. "Under The Fig Trees," her narrative film debut was filmed in her father's village, its cast members speaking his dialect. She is a co-founder of a filmmaking collective of female filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa called Rawiyat – Sisters in Film which seeks to support and amplify independent filmmakers from across the region. 

For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column RogerEbert.com spoke to Sehiri over Zoom about the fig tree as a metaphor for Tunisian society, presenting the region in a more nuanced way, finding inspiration and strength with her collaborators, and the importance of solidarity. 

You've spoken so beautifully about how figs are such a fragile fruit and also an important part of the culture in this rural part of Tunisia. As you were developing the film, when did your focus shift to the fig orchards and finding life under those fig trees?

I wasn't thinking from the beginning about figs. I was just researching women working in the fields, and especially in orchards because of this Eden kind of look that they have. My father has fig trees, and he was originally from this village. I remembered how he would explain to me how figs work, with the male and the female fig. Throughout the writing of the script, it became obvious that also this young generation of women and men were central to the story. I thought it would be an interesting metaphor with the fruit. Of course, there's the sensuality of the fruit. But not just that. We eat the female fruit and we don't eat the male one. I also find the polarization of the fruits very interesting. It's like flirting. 

I became interested in the idea of flirting, because I feel like we are in an era where flirting is not happening anymore. So there is something out of time with them. In a way they're very modern, but the way they flirt is very old school, because of their situation. It felt like a very good metaphor for the country. We've been through a revolution and everything, but at the same time, nothing seemed to change. 

So it was the idea of using the fruit, and also the tree itself. The fact that they’re very old trees. They’re part of the Bible. It’s in the Qur'an, too. So it's very much a kind of a humanity tree. So it has this old vibe. It's very strong, but at the same time it is very fragile. 

The orchard itself is a metaphor for the country. They are suffocating under those trees. You cannot look out of them. You don't have any perspective for your life outside of this orchard. That was the idea behind having a big tree. That's not the case with all fruits. Some fruits, the leaves of their trees are not big enough to cover the whole sky. So it became clear that this was the right tree for film and the right metaphor.

I love the way you mentioned how fig trees are very old and can live for a very long time. And then you have these girls who are sometimes using their cell phones underneath them. It’s such a wonderful contrast between the traditions and the changes of the younger generation. How did you balance the imagery between the timelessness of the fruit picking and then these little tidbits of modern life?

I like to build on little secrets. You know, the secrets we keep, the stories we tell, the forgotten loves and the hopes. I found the setting was an interesting place to work on that. So the cell phones are the outside world that we don't ever see in the film. They all have a life. They have all kinds of other stories. But because we chose to set up this film in this place, we had to be very faithful to the working day in that place. So we could not bring all of the stories that are probably part of their lives outside, because it's outside. 

There are very different ideas of what love means for the girls in this film. You have the more conservative girl saying she wants to make her partner more conservative before they get married. You have the older woman who wants to be buried with the man who got away. Another older woman who was perfectly happy with her husband. I love that you have all those conflicting ideas, and not a single one is ever presented as the "right way". It's always a conversation. Were these discussions scripted?

The idea for the whole film was to make audiences anywhere in the world relate to these people. It's always what we do watching cinema, in this case to relate to those people who are picking figs in Tunisia. You may have nothing in common, but the idea is to see yourself reflected in their struggles, ambitions, whatever.

So the characters were in the scripts, but the dialogue was more of an idea of what the conversations were going to be about. We had the cast improvise the discussions in rehearsals before we started shooting. This helped bring humor to the film. For example, when Leila says if she dies she wants to be buried on top of her lost love and if he dies first he’ll be buried on top of her, then the girls tease her and say they’ll look like a building. It’s hard to translate the humor because it’s very specific to the dialect. It doesn’t have the exact same meaning when you translate it because it’s part of the whole history of our humor. 

This mix of writing and improvisation allowed the whole thing to be very organic. So instead of pushing the scripted narrative, it was more important to give them a space to express themselves. That’s also why the script is built like a theater play, like a stage with this one location. Our cinema has a lot of artificiality. We have a lot of drama happening in our country. So, for me, it was really important to look at our people more simply the way they are. The way they express themselves and the way they actually look. I wanted to get rid of all the other aspects that foreigners or Western audiences are used to seeing from our countries. I found it really interesting to look at our struggles in a different way.

You’ve said you cut some of the more dramatic elements out in the edit and imagined that maybe the worst day for these characters was maybe yesterday. That the today of the film is an average day. I think that's really revolutionary in any cinema. We're very used to seeing everyone's worst day. I love that here we just see the ups and downs of a normal day at work.

That was really risky. I know that in the US it was hard for the film to get into theaters because of it. It was too slice of life. But it was kind of a statement for me. It was really important. If I shot this film in France, probably it would be the worst day, because we are used to seeing French people in every aspect of their lives. But as for the Arab world, and Arab women, we often only see them in one aspect. It's always this big drama. The characters are always living through the worst violence. 

I started to be interested in making the audience feel like there is violence around and it is dramatic, actually. And it's dramatic because it's everyday life. It's dramatic that your boss might harass you. It’s dramatic that you might not have your paycheck today and that you have no security in transportation. That you can die just because of an accident. That's our drama. But the dramatic part of the film doesn't look like a drama. I think because I filmed this film in Tunisia, with these people, that is why I toned down what is supposed in a scenario, the expected plot of a scenario. So that they could just stop for a bit, and I could just spend this day with them, simple as that.

You mentioned earlier that the leaves of the fig trees are so big they block out the sun. But there is still so much light in this film. Can you talk a bit about working with your cinematographer to capture that naturalistic light?

I think our countries have so much light. That's what you don't see in our cinema. We see darkness most of the time, but our country is filled with so much light. So much so, that it was a problem for the cinematographer. We had too much light. Usually, the problem is that we need to add more lights for a scene. But we had to hide the sun sometimes and at other times we had to catch it. So for every scene we had to shoot at the same hour every day. Another issue was that we shot the film in two different years because of money issues. So it was really challenging. The lunch scene, for example, we had to shoot it in two different seasons of figs. Ultimately, it was all about using natural light with no reflector. Just natural light and being at the right place at the right time. 

I'm glad you brought up the lunch scene. I love that scene so much. All of that food looks so good. That scene really highlights the communal aspects of the film. They all share food with each other. Later, despite all their disagreements earlier, all of the girls and women rally around each other when the boss tries to harass them or withhold their pay. 

I was interested in traditional solidarity. Because actually, there's more and more communities now actually. There's communities lobbying. There's a lot of groups in the world. Now, there's groups on social media too. Most of the time, it's people who have the same values or share the same political point of views or it’s people who look the same. They get together. That's what community is now. I felt like a traditional community was more about how we don't have a choice but to be together, even if we don't have the same point of view.

You can see with the girls, even in terms of the way they wear their veils, their relationships with men, with generations, and with religion are not the same. They are not the same in terms of conservatism. There's a lot of nuances between them. They don't agree on everything. The girls are very different from each other, but at the end they still have this very strong bond. That's why I say traditional, because they are living in a traditional way. There's something interesting about how to look at solidarity between human beings and to look back to more traditional ways of living together, and contrast that with the way we build solidarity now. 

The ending in the truck was one of the first things we shot, and at the time the film was still a drama. Before we headed into the edit, the whole film in the beginning was the idea that it might be the last day at work before an accident. So the film was built at the script level through the details of this day that will be important because it's going to be the last one, without the character knowing it's the last one. But I think the bones between each other, the love at the end, even if it’s just for a moment, I felt it was stronger than anything else that could happen that day. So I decided to end the film this way.

I wanted to ask you about casting Fidé Fdhili, who you found in an open audition and then followed her working in the orchards over a summer. She is so dynamic. I remember seeing this at TIFF and going, “Who is this and why is she not in a million movies?” Could you talk a bit about collaborating with her?

In the first script she was the main character. She was the heroine. In the final edit she is and she's not , which I also find very interesting. She has everything to be the lead. She's very talented and so natural and so photogenic. She has such an aura. But I also like the idea that everyone else is also important. She's still on the poster because more than just being one of the main actors of the film, also for me who she is in life was what made me want to make this film. She was there from the beginning of the process to the end with me, as a sister.

The sisterhood that we had meant a lot. I had a lot of doubts. It was my first feature narrative. I had decided not to make it generic in a way and to work on the plot to make it very naturalistic. This is a risky kind of film for a first film. So the fact that I had her with me, meant a lot. Every time I saw her during rehearsals, I felt that I was okay, that the film was okay. Because it's really based on those faces and who they are also in life. I felt that this will probably be transmitted to the audience, even if it's not going to be a wide audience, it will for sure be transmitted through her, and through the other actors. 

I love how much of a focus on the faces there is in this film. I think in American cinema now, we don't necessarily trust faces. There's a lot of wide shots and it's really boring. It’s very refreshing that in this film you have all these interactions that are sometimes just eyes locking. 

I received comments from people telling me oh, these girls from Iran are so beautiful. I had someone else say how beautiful the women in Turkey are. Or from Palestine. People often didn’t know which country these women were from. They were seeing in the cast the girls from this whole region. I found that very sweet. I love the idea that films are spaces where you can represent something bigger than just Tunisia. 

Are there any filmmakers who are women who have either inspired your career or women who are making films that you think perhaps not enough people have seen and they should seek them out?

I've always loved Maïwenn. She's a French filmmaker. She did a film called “Polisse”. She has so much density. I watch Sofia Coppola's films, of course, but that's so obvious. For this film I looked at Iranian cinema like Abbas Kiarostami and I also looked at a lot of American films like John Cassavetes. They are men, not women, but I like looking at the way male filmmakers portray women in films. It’s always interesting to see how they look at women and how they look at each other.

Looking at our filmmakers like Nadine Labaki in Lebanon and Kaouther Ben Hania in Tunisia and Annemarie Jacir in Palestine. There is this whole generation of women filmmakers in the region. It is exciting to know that you're a part of a moment for the region. I am really happy that I'm part of it. Because what's going on now in terms of filmmaking in our women filmmakers and what they're doing right now in the region is so important. I'm happy that it's happening now, because actually, it's kind of a hard time to start filmmaking. I feel like I'm starting, in a way, at the worst time because of all the films that are being made. There’s VOD and streaming platforms and all that. It's not the best time. But it's also the best time because of all these women filmmakers who are right here, at this moment, in our region.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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