Erige Sehiri talks about her Cannes title 'Under the Fig Trees'

One of the most anticipated titles from the Region in this year's Cannes lineup, Erige Sehiri's film gives us a day in the life in a fig orchard and in the process, hands us a quiet masterpiece.
Erige Sehiri talks about her Cannes title 'Under the Fig Trees'

If Under the Fig Trees feels like a documentary, well, the filmmaker Erige Sehiri has a background in developing Tunisian author-driven docs, such as her 2018 breakout feature, Railway Men.

Last year in Venice, there was a huge buzz around her first fiction feature Under The Fig Trees, which she wrote, directed and produced. After winning several post-production awards at Final Cut in Venice, the title also participated in the Atlas Ateliers, the industry and talent-development programme initiated in 2018 by the Marrakech International Film Festival with the support of Netflix. The film also received a grant from the Doha Film Institute in the Spring of 2021, for post-production.

Then, it was selected to world premiere at the coveted Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, the maison sidebar in Cannes where auteurs are featured -- and it fit perfectly there.

Under the Fig Trees is a little jewel of a film, and by little I only mean that its story takes place over the course of one day and feels much like a theatre play, cozy and fly-on-the-wall, rather than a film. With a fantastic ensemble cast of non-actors, featuring a cinematographer, Frida Marzouk who conveys an intimacy beyond what can be described by mere words, and directed by a powerful filmmaker whose future work one can look forward to, the film is a cinematic gift to its audience.

I caught up with Sehiri after Cannes via Zoom and here is our chat, about women, magical accidents and the forbidden fruit.

Your film feels a lot like a theatre play, so I wanted to know how did this magical film come to be?

It was magic! You know, I feel like I was picking up moments and picking up stories, the way they are picking the figs in the film. Because I'm coming from documentary, I was interested in the real life of these women. And I was documenting their lives. But from the beginning I knew that the story will not be out of the orchard and that everything would happen there. Because it's kind of repeating itself, it is a daily life that is repeating itself and what's happening there I could film it for a whole summer or for two, three years, it would always be the same thing that happens. The idea of having the story take place in one day, in this orchard which is like a stage where these non-actors can express themselves was something that I wanted to experience.

Mine is not an experimental film, but it was an experience for me to build that this way.

And also in real life, these women they take risks when they go to work, especially the older women. And very often we hear in the news that one has fallen out of the truck while going to work or going back home. And I thought and imagined in my head what the last day will look like if there's an accident at the end of the day. And then I just realized that it will look like life -- like any other day because we don't know what can happen at the end of any day. I'm not making any statements with the film.

Which is what is great about Under the Fig Trees. Too many world cinema titles these days do make statement, while you just take us through their lives without imposing your point of view. I read somewhere that the group you've cast were picking cherries, not figs. Can you talk about why the change of scene, orchard?

It's not that they're cherry pickers, it depends on the season so they will work everywhere. But when I met them, they were picking cherries. It was in June, actually, so that harvest would be happening now. And also usually figs are not picked by women, they are mostly picked by men in real life because they have to go up into the trees and it's a very physical thing -- even more in real life than in the film actually. But I liked to play up the fact that women are the ones who work the most, percentage wise everywhere in the world, in farms and on orchards. It was really important for me to show that on screen too, even in the fig orchard. So yes, I changed that.

I also wanted an Eden, to show the beauty of sharing moments, even though there's a lot of trauma to it. So that was the impression I wanted to leave. Yeah, well while watching them and while filming them.

Erige Sehiri by © Elise Ortiou Campion

And the fig, like you say, has this Eden connotation to it and this sort of magical forbidden fruit kind of thing...

They even say that the true forbidden fruit is not the apple but it's the fig that was eaten by Eve. So I liked that idea.

I also like the idea of that this fruit is not a real fruit, it's a flower and there is a pollination involved and there is male and female, and we eat only the female fruit -- I like all these connotations. And also the fig tree itself is very heavy, very strong but the fig is very fragile. But it also has that white milky substance that can burn the hand. And that's the kind of metaphor I wanted to build, there is a danger you can maybe feel or not, but it's there and it could come from falling off the truck, or exhaustion in the hot orchard... or even lost in your love. And also the idea that the fruit from the same tree don't necessarily ripen at the same time. Which is what the film also says about the characters, they are not at the same stages in their relationships.

As a documentary filmmaker you are used to working with non-actors but what were the challenges of working on this film, and what is the best thing of working with non actors?

The challenge was more about the place, the mise en scène. I love improvisation anyway, it's just magical and so much fun. I wanted the audience to feel that the film is kind of happening in front of them, like it's not written in advance. And even though we have the scenes, but still I wanted us to feel that, like we're spending that moment with them and we don't know what's next. We cannot expect anything.

There is an anecdote from the shoot, in the moment when Fide [Fdhili] was shooting her scene where she says there are no more men here and you are all hypocrites and there were worker picking fruit all around us. They were working for real. One worker didn't realize we were making a film, he heard her and got upset. We had cut the scene right before then, but my documentary experience kicked in and when I saw him coming I knew something was going to happen. And I looked at my DoP and said "we must shoot this now." So the scene in the film with the old man saying to her, "that is not nice, you shouldn't say that about us" is a real moment, it's not fiction. One shot, no second shots.

Even though we see the film taking place in one day, I imagine your shoot was longer than that. What was it like and also, you must have found yourself in the middle of the pandemic at some point?

We needed to shoot in two times, and I shot it actually in two different years. The first main shooting happened in August 2020 and the second one was in 2021, because we needed to wait for the fig harvest. Our decor is the nature! Easy on the one hand because they were already picking figs and they forgot about gestures. They were doing it and not something they had to act. But it was challenging because the time wasn't enough as the fig harvest only lasts one month. And that was not enough for the whole film. And to divide it into two different years was a risk, as it's supposed to all take place in the arc of one day. People, relationships all change in real life in a year.

What was funny though is that the characters were the same in the end, but the orchard was different. It was yellow. Nature changed but not the people.

So where do you wish the film to go after Cannes?

I really want to share the film because I want people to feel like they got to share a moment with these people and this place and feel connected to them. I also think it's interesting to share with other filmmakers and with students the way the film was made. I produced it as well and we did it the way we wanted to do it. It would be interesting to travel with that experience and share it with others.

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