Figment of their Imagination: Sehiri’s Baskets Filled with Hope, Humor and Harsh Truths
There is a lot more behind the scenes drama that goes into the picking of the fruits, vegetables, or in this case, the figs we eat if we go by Erige Sehiri’s agronomic, and economic spun tale youth’s shared wisdom and missteps. With plenty of treading on someone’s toes, the predominately set in-between branches and tree trunks Under the Fig Trees is less about labor-intensive work of the sector and more about a belief that a patriarchal Tunisia can do better. By way of private conversations and thorny rebuttals, we find a cleverly disguised collective coming-of-age tale about future men getting second chances, and about young women who dream (in-between instagram posts and boy-talk) of a better outcome. While this is not as critical as Mounia Meddour’s (Papicha) similar reflections found in neighboring contemporary Algeria, there are nonetheless face-value elements that make this a simplistic, breezy watch that is ripe for bigger discussions.
Co-written alongside The Secret of the Grain / Blue Is the Warmest Colour scribe Ghalia Lacroix and Peggy Hamann, Sehiri instantly cues viewers in the hierarchy of the seasonal pickers. Led by a foreman (happens to second as the driver) who feels entitled to do his own alternative type of “picking,” this particular workforce unit (small enough to fit in a run down pickup truck) are the returning elder folks of previous seasons with the focus of the film’s many moments of conflict in the less experienced, more apt at climbing tree free-spirited and outspoken youth. The more alluring aspects in the film are found in an endless supply of configurations or, for lack of a better term — work-pairings. Malek, Fidé, Sana and Mariem skirt around the issues, flirt and find themselves trying on different parts of their personalities when others are indeed watching. The casting means you’ll find actual family members in this core.
The fig itself is a curious food category concoction – a bulb-like stem filled with flowers and seeds which could symbolically represent the cross-pollination occurring here. In a full day’s honest work sunrise to sunset timeline, we learn of shared past histories, some innocently cupid light in nature and some that cross the line — the truth exists somewhere out there and is often co-owned.
Sehiri is keenly interested in structures, dynamics, rapport between members of the same gender, and the conflicts and resolutions that move more swiftly than, say, larger bureaucratic institutions. And if the ensemble performances and a large number of the scenes feel genuine it has a lot to do with handheld aestheticism. Sehiri’s docu background (her last feature Railway Men (2018) also focuses on the worker and his/her trade) and cinematographer Frida Marzouk’s close-up camera add layers of intimacy to the baby and wrinkled faced character set and the play with angles furthers how small spaces exist a bit everywhere on the hillside lay of the land.
Had Sehiri chosen a more tragic denouement, the resulting parting sequence where a hard day’s (or week’s) pay would have been one issue oriented – and here we get a full spectrum – with youth possibly learning how to harness their ability to find a just meaning to the inviolability of love and understanding. Like the overall haul of the day that gets carted out with care, so do the faces we’ve come to recognize in Under the Fig Trees. The group are sent off back to their village with care, with a bit more color – knowing that true freedom is something you work for and work towards.
Reviewed on May 21st at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight. 92 Mins