Set over the course of one day, Erige Sehiri’s narrative feature debut Under the Fig Trees (Sous les figues) is a thoughtful ensemble film about the group of workers in a Tunisian fig orchard.
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Erige Sehiri’s narrative feature debut Under the Fig Trees (Sous les figues) is an ensemble story told in stolen moments of relative privacy in a workplace of constant surveillance. Set over the course of a single day in a small town in Tunisia, Sehiri follows a group of summer workers at a fig orchard harvesting the fruit from the moment they get picked up in the morning until when they go home that night. On this sunny, summer day, where nothing much happens, class and gender tensions boil to the surface, and the systems of exploitation and oppression the characters live under are revealed for scrutiny.
Half of the workers are energetic teenagers, here for a summer job, and they do the bulk of the hard work of climbing onto the trees and pulling off the figs one by one. Half of them are elderly, mostly women, and from the sage advice they dispense about how to pick the figs correctly, it’s clear they’ve been doing gigs like this for years and have grown weary from it. Nobody seems to like it much, but there are moments of joy: singing together, washing by the stream at a break, sharing stories over a meal.
Since most of the interactions happen surreptitiously under the fig trees, Sehiri mostly favours tight closeups with pans between the two characters speaking. It keeps us right in their conversation and unaware of who might be watching or listening. Their boss wanders the orchard constantly, snapping at people for chatting instead of working, and we know he could be just outside of the frame at any time. In this small town, the orchard is a kind of refuge, where girls and boys can talk and meet and generations mix with less formality and rules than in daily life. But they’re under constant threat of reprimand, being overheard and misunderstood, and potentially losing their jobs.
Still, there are beautiful, quiet moments of connection. Two teenage exes who have been separated for five years by family tragedy tentatively reconnect amidst the branches, slowly opening up about how much they’ve missed each other. A conservative young woman tries to connect with her paramour, planning how they’ll meet once school resumes (at the grocery store, in the yoghourt aisle) and they no longer have the refuge of the orchard. A sweet but somewhat careless teenage boy chats with the girls and tries to hold onto his job despite the boss’s repeated attempts at firing him.
There is some class solidarity in this setting where everyone fears the boss and everyone shares food at meals and breaks. But there are limits. One of the eldest workers regularly informs on her colleagues in exchange for secret extra pay and other privileges. At lunch time, she recalls being in love and suffering when she couldn’t marry the boy she loved, yet feels little remorse for policing the young people she works with. She’s just trying to survive. The girls may be joking and smiling about boys and marriage one moment, and then turning on each other the next, usually becoming agents of the patriarchal oppression they’re always aware of.
The first young woman we meet, Fidé (Fide Fdhili) with her vibrantly patterned headscarf, especially stands out. She is the most strong-willed and independent-minded of the teenagers, who has been beaten down by a world about which she has no illusions. We first meet her in the passenger seat of the pickup truck that drives the workers to the orchard; she’s the only one given the rare privilege of sitting inside instead of standing in the back, and it’s a subject of gossip. The driver is her boss and he seems doting, but once under the fig trees, Fidé quietly reveals that she doesn’t trust him or expect anything from him. She knows that it’s not uncommon in these exploitative situations for women to be raped by their bosses. When a sexual assault happens that day, she immediately understands the aftermath without being told. Her younger sister is the idealistic one in love, reconnecting with her ex. Fidé indulges her dreams while encouraging her to be more realistic. Fidé has no time for piety, for depending on men, for trading an education for obedience and marriage.
Although Sehiri mostly focuses on the interactions between the women, who make up the majority of the workers, and women with men, we do get occasional glimpses of the male world. The male half of the yoghourt couple has a private conversation with his boss about planning a trip to the city to pick up women, possibly sex workers, giving us enough information to know Fidé was right, and the romantic notions of some of the girls are likely to lead to disappointment. In one key scene, the long-lost ex talks to his uncle who owns the farm and is renting it out to their boss for the day; we learn that the boy has been denied the inheritance he deserves, a half share of the property, in the wake of his parents’ death. There’s an irony to how he’s being exploited on his own land, and lambasted in the process for trying to find justice in a world where he’s all alone. His hesitance with his paramour, we discover, is because of this: he’s afraid to make promises when there are no guarantees for his ability to provide.
Near the end of the film, and the end of the day, there’s a great series of scenes in which each of the workers individually talk with the boss to receive their weeks’ pay. It reminded me of the performance reviews in First Stripes, for how much it reveals about how differently (and generally unjustly) people are treated by their boss depending on their age, gender, and how he happens to feel about them that day. The juxtaposition of this same interaction, shot with the boss seated and in power, with the workers having to walk up to him and beg for their wages, further reinforces the inequalities and injustices of the world they live in and in their work specifically.