Review by Sean Boelman
The Tunisian film Under the Fig Trees debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s the type of international discovery that the section was designed to find. Wowing in its simplicity and humanity, this may not be the flashiest of movies, but it leaves a lasting impact nonetheless.
The film follows a group of young fieldworkers as they converse about life, love, and the other things that are important to them in the world. Sehiri’s background is in documentary filmmaking — this being her narrative debut — and her work in nonfiction gave her the experience to do wonders here, creating something intimate and insightful.
Sehiri does an excellent job of balancing the themes in the movie so it never feels like it is preaching a message to the audience. Yes, the film does address weighty subject matter like sexism and the patriarchy, but it does so in a way that feels natural and flows perfectly with their concerns about other, more trite aspects of their lives.
What makes Sehiri’s movie so effective is that it feels equally weightless and impactful. It’s entirely airy and lovely, but never feels insignificant. It’s clear that Sehiri has a profound love for this culture that she is depicting, and she wants to show it in all of its beauty and flaws so that the rest of the world can see it.
It is impressive the level of intimacy Sehiri is able to make the audience feel with all of these characters. Through their conversations about the mundanities of their daily lives, we get to feel for and care about these characters in a way that one wouldn’t expect without ever feeling like it is being condescending towards them.
The fact that these are all unprofessional actors definitely adds to the feel of realism that the film aims for, but it’s quite effective. Fide Fdhili leads the cast — and ultimately the movie was built around her — and has a fantastic, compelling screen presence to her that one wouldn’t expect from a young girl.
The film is also gorgeous to look at. The use of natural light is just astounding and creates an atmosphere that is unique — almost even idyllic. It’s an interesting effect that, by eliminating artificial sources of lighting, the movie feels askew in a way that contrasts nicely with the heightened sense of realism in the script.
Under the Fig Trees is an impressive narrative debut for Erige Sehiri, taking the sensibilities of nonfiction filmmaking and creating a compellingly grounded film. It’s subtle in a way that is thoroughly powerful.
Under the Fig Trees screened at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar.