Every morning in northwest Tunisia, a truck drives around picking up day laborers for the nearby fig orchard. While some are old and experienced, “Under the Fig Trees” follows a group of teenage girls who take on this job during their summer school break. When we first meet them, as they giddily (if wearily) walk up onto the pickup truck, it’s clear this has all become routine for them. The day that follows, as chronicled in Erige Sehiri’s sun-dappled film, offers a rare glimpse into their seemingly mundane life and their even richer inner lives.
Working from a script co-written with Ghalya Lacroix and Peggy Hamann, Sehiri turns this rural fig orchard into a stage where dramas, small and big alike, are played out. Away from the prying eyes of their parents yet keenly aware of how they’re looked upon by the men and older women they work with, the girls at the center of “Under the Fig Trees” allow themselves to dream up new worlds for themselves, even as they bemoan the circumstances of the one they live day to day.
Sehiri’s observational gaze (crafted alongside DP Frida Marzouk, who makes the most out of the orchard’s warm natural light) may be borrowed from her background in documentary filmmaking. But it is here deftly deployed to capture ineffable moments that feel authentic. But there is no mistaking this for a nonfiction film, mostly because the conversations the teenage girls have among themselves, and the interactions they have with men of various ages, feel decidedly overdetermined. Perhaps too much happens during this one day, but it’s all presented with such gentleness that its narrative convenience doesn’t detract from the portrait it’s aiming to sketch — not of young women stuck between tradition and modernity but of modern young women navigating what aspects of tradition they individually wish to maintain.
Sehiri’s work with her actors is revelatory. From the film’s initial moments, it’s obvious Sehiri has recruited a group of non-professional performers. There’s an unguarded sensibility to the way these teenage girls move through the world even under the director’s gaze, as well as an openness to their expressions, to their gestures, to their actions. Their chemistry with one another is organic. This is especially true in moments where, whether having lunch, enjoying a leisurely break or even riding the truck out of the orchard toward the end of the film, these girls tease one another and elicit plenty of unprompted laughter.
The dialogue, much of which was improvised and written in tandem with the film’s actors, flirts with melodrama on the one hand and observational documentary on the other. While the girls work under the sun’s punishing heat (and under the gaze of a punishment-prone boss), Sehiri zeroes in on petty conversations that could very well be taking place at recess or between torn pieces of paper during class. There are crushes to be talked about and marriages to daydream about, along with family obligations to discuss and changes in mores to debate. Stuck between those two poles are Sehiri’s protagonists, teenagers who crave and cling to aspects of their girlhood while also keenly aware of the demands made of them as women — and as possible wives.
Take Fidé (Fide Fdhili). Arguably the most assertive of the bunch, she refuses to be boxed into the roles required of girls her age. Unlike some of her friends, she doesn’t pine away for men, nor is she willing to play the role of wilting flower in their eyes. There are whispers about Fidé’s close relationship with her boss (why else would she get to ride up front with him in his truck?), and she makes no attempt to hide the way she enjoys flirting with boys her age while picking figs, which in ruffles feathers with her friends.
Where the signature gesture Sehiri calls upon her characters to embody is the coy glance, an invitation wrapped up in plausible deniability, a girlish giggle that brims with sexual fervor, Fidé is all open arms and wide-eyed come-ons. It’s not that she throws herself at men; it’s that she refuses to apologize for what she may want of them. As she puts it in one climactic fight, “I don’t care what other people think. That’s their problem.” It’s a simple philosophy, but one which unsettles those around her — especially when it follows a diatribe on the hypocrisy she suffers through every day, and which she sees play out in rather traumatic ways.
As the day wears on, the girls’ many small dramas unfold throughout the orchard. Bickering discussions disrupt everyone’s work; illicit meetings add up to the boss’ suspicions that someone is stealing from him; chance encounters quickly turn abusive. At every turn, Sehiri’s camera closes in on her characters, literally. Despite taking place in an open-air orchard that we know has little resembling fences (making its security guard’s job all the harder), “Under the Fig Trees” can oftentimes feel quite claustrophobic. It’s all close-ups and medium shots. What we’re left with are the expressive faces of Sehiri’s assembled cast, all of whom bring to life a coterie of girls who collectively refuse to be seen as a monolith, providing instead different facets of contemporary girlhood in rural Tunisia.