Under the Fig Leaves Lets Its Women Talk Back
In the final moments of the lovingly shot and ferociously defiant Under the Fig Trees, four young women crowd into a bathroom to get ready for the night ahead of them after hours of picking figs for measly wages under the hot Tunisian sun. Two of them take off their headscarves entirely, one of them pushes it backward to pull out tendrils of hair to frame her face, and one of them keeps hers on. Their choices are as political as they are aesthetic, though French-Tunisian director Erige Sehiri resists emphasizing that in the simplicity of the moment. Don’t let that fool you, though: Under the Fig Trees is a big-minded film that grounds its ideas about labor, sexism, faith, and modernity in the zippy rhythms of its characters’ negotiations around friendship, romance, and work. Most of the film’s runtime is people talking, but with evocative dialogue and lived-in performances from mostly first-time actors, it’s an unapologetic slice of life.
Filmed in a working orchard in northwest Tunisia, Under the Fig Trees takes place over one day, beginning with women waiting for a ride to work. One of the film’s few wide shots places us under its creamsicle-hazy sky, with dirt roads leading into the mountain fig orchards. Each day, orchard manager Saber (Fedi Ben Achour) — referred to as “Boss” by everyone, even employees decades older than him — loads his pickup truck full of workers (all of them either teenagers or elderly) and drives them to the land he’s renting. Over 12 or so hours, they’re expected to fill dozens of crates with ripe and unblemished figs, without breaking the trees’ branches or talking back to Boss, lest their pay for the day get held back.
As the day goes on, the teens tease, flirt, gossip, and fight, as Sehiri’s handheld camera spies on them through golden-lit leaves. (The film has a sometimes-voyeuristic feel, nodding to Sehiri’s past as a documentarian.) Each conversation hints at larger forces dictating the laborers’ lives. Sisters Fidé (Fidé Fdhili) and Melek (Feten Fdhili) are shocked when Melek’s ex-boyfriend Abdou (Abdelhak Mrabti) returns to work as a laborer at the orchard after moving to the coastal city Monastir five years ago. Why would Abdou leave a place with better job opportunities for this? Melek is convinced that she wants to quit school and marry Abdou, but the pragmatic Fidé has learned the hard way not to trust any men. “You have to keep your guard up,” she tells her younger sister with an older-than-her-years gravitas. Meanwhile, the religious Sana (Ameni Fdhili) and her sarcastic friend Mariem (Samar Sifi) argue about Sana’s plan to marry the womanizing Firas (Firas Amri) and convince him to be more conservative. “That’s nonsense. You’re the one who has to obey,” Mariam reminds her.
The elder workers have their own thoughts about the teens’ conversations and arguments, and Sehiri gleans both humor and melancholy from their reactions: cutting to the older women eating their lunch in silence in another part of the orchard, while the teens loudly scroll through Instagram; holding her lens on the motherly Leila (Leila Ouhebi) when she unexpectedly starts singing a mournful lament after warning the girls not to marry someone they don’t love. Boss is the film’s obvious villain, a vaping incel who sees all the young women who work for him as prey. (Achour’s demeanor turns on a dime, and the one physical altercation he has with a teen employee is a frightening reveal of what he’s capable of.) But the film places him within an ecosystem that has many arms of power weighing down upon the proletariat, from gender-based hierarchies to class immobility. The workers know they’re undervalued and expect to be underpaid. They won’t take it silently, though, and Under the Fig Trees finds its spirit in letting its characters talk back.
Their triumphs are on their own terms: a woman successfully barters for better pay, a woman breaks off an engagement. There’s a fascinating metatextual tension in that only female figs are consumed but the orchard’s female workers are banned from eating them by their male boss. Under the Fig Trees finds all these points of gender-based friction and links them together into a call for confrontation. In that bathroom, Sehiri drops out the sound as Fidé, Melek, Sana, and Mariem share lipstick and blush, pull mirrors out of their socks and hold them to each others’ faces, and take selfies over and over again. All we’re directed to focus on are the teens’ faces, and the expressions of joy, coyness, and affection that bounce around this intimate space. Under the Fig Trees is concerned with how societal limitations diminish us all, but at its core, the film is a jubilant portrait of individuality that honors how these girls refuse to change each other — and to change for anyone but themselves.
tags: movies, review, movie review, under the fig leaves