“Under the figs”: Tunisian agricultural workers, heroines in the cinema

Confidences, budding loves, disputes and rivalries… This first fiction feature film by Erige Sehiri, shot in full been in the underprivileged northwest of Tunisia.

In her film, the Franco-Tunisian filmmaker wanted to show young rural Tunisian women “so modern and connected” in disadvantaged areas, able to create a space of freedom in a conservative environment. The feature film, distributed in Europe, and released this Wednesday in France, has been shortlisted to represent Tunisia at the Oscars in 2023 as best foreign film.

Intimate camera far from clichés

In searing heat, the orchard, located near the town of Kesra, “represents a space of freedom where workers, especially young people, talk and discuss everything, in complete freedom”explained director Erige Sehiri, 40, in an interview with AFP.

It’s a film inspired by real events, which I heard from women farm workers who work hard all year round and also from young high school girls who come in the summer.
Erige Sehiri, Franco-Tunisian filmmaker

In a kind of camera, the actors, all amateurs, accustomed to working in the fields or on the wholesale markets, tell part of their life, as harsh as the fig tree, with moments of fragility. “It’s a film inspired by real events, which I heard from women farm workers who work hard all year round and also from young high school girls who come in the summer”she adds.

A film about solidarity

In the film, it is above all the girls, sometimes helped by a young boy, who pick the ripe figs to pass them on to adults representing the older generation. They then place them carefully in boxes, under the implacable control of an irascible young boss, a symbol of traditional patriarchy.

Produced with a modest budget of 300,000 euros, under the figs is “a film about the individual and the collective, because one does not go without the other, they work together”explains the director.

Break the cliché of rural women represented, generally abroad, as miserable and withdrawn.
Erect Sehiri

He also talks about the solidarity between the young women who share their food and the desire for emancipation. Like when they go for a walk with the boys by a river or when they make themselves beautiful, after their hard work, and take selfies for their Facebook or Instagram accounts.

“Our youth is so modern, like all the others in the world”underlines Erige Sehiri who wanted to “break the cliché of rural women represented, generally abroad, as miserable and withdrawn”.

An exchange between generations of women

One of the main characters, Fide, is played by Ameni Fdhili, a student who, in real life, picks cherries during her summer vacation.

Realistic, sometimes a bit cynical, Fide and her friends are aware of the lack of opportunities and the difficult economic situation in their country. But they give themselves the right to dream of another destiny.

Create a mirror effect, because perhaps these workers reflect the future of these young girls, and at the same time, to show the nostalgia they have for their youth.
Erect Sehiri

The director also shows middle-aged women, tired by the weight of the years, who spend their break taking a nap or discussing their physical and moral pain. Two generations meet to create “a mirror effect, because perhaps these workers reflect the future of these young girls, and at the same time, to show the nostalgia they have” of their youth.

The filmmaker gave the actors the opportunity to improvise the dialogues while respecting the script. Erige Sehiri was “Pleasantly surprised” of the “ease of these young people to express themselves in a simple, sincere and spontaneous way”.

On the way to the Oscars?

She wanted to propose a film “different and special”without imagining, however, that he would win several awards or could represent his country at the Oscars.

under the figs won the Tanit d’Argent at the Carthage Cinematographic Days in October after winning the Bayard d’Or at the Namur Francophone Film Festival (Belgium) and the Ecoprod Jury Prize during La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs in Cannes. In Germany, he recently won first prize at the Tübingen Francophone Film Festival in Stuttgart.

“I’m very happy! It couldn’t be better for a first fiction film played by amateurs! It’s even extraordinary”rejoices Erige Sehiri.

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“Under the figs”: Tunisian agricultural workers, heroines in the cinema