The Movie Waffler New Release Review - UNDER THE FIG TREES | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - UNDER THE FIG TREES

Under the Fig Trees review
A group of young fig pickers connect over the course of a hot summer day.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Erige Sehiri

Starring: Fide Fdhili, Feten Fdhili, Ameni Fdhili, Samar Sifi, Leila Ouhebi, Hneya Ben Elhedi Sbahi, Gaith Mendassi, Abdelhak Mrabti, Fedi Ben Achour, Firas Amri

Under the Fig Trees poster

How do you find your work colleagues? Great bunch of lads, or grating dolts whom you view with extreme and imposed prejudice, grinning through gritted teeth as you repress every one of your infuriated instincts in the hopeful pursuit of just getting through the week and surviving until pay day? I would imagine for most of us the answer falls somewhere between the two. As the cliché goes, we spend more time with colleagues, in a situation so diametrically opposed to comfort and enjoyment that we refer to it as "work," than we do the friends we’ve cultivated or the families we love (an abiding work pet hate: when a boss refers to the staff as "a family." Do fuck off.) Unless we're lucky enough to be in highly specific employment which attracts the like-minded - working in the city, say, or being a teacher - then the rest of us have to make do with who we're stuck with.

Under the Fig Trees review

In Erige Sehiri's (who also shares writing duties with Peggy Hamann and Ghalya Lacroix) unique Under the Fig Trees, similar economic necessity duly drives a group of fruit pickers together, meeting at first light to be bundled onto flatbed vans and driven off to scrubland, where they spend the waking hours together culling the figs just come into season.

The film follows the ensuing day of work for the team of Tunisian workers, and we witness their social interplay as they fall out, fall back in and find the most freshly fuchsia of fruits. Sehiri apparently happened upon the idea of the film while casting a completely different project: she met one of the actors who would end up in Under the Fig Trees and, inspired by the girl's background in picking fruit, developed the film around the livelihood. Problem is that in order to fully enjoy Under the Fig Trees, you too would have to harbour an especial interest in the vicissitudes of a day-to-day fruit picker, such is the carefully constructed verisimilitude of this honest but dramatically underwhelming activity.

Under the Fig Trees review

I'm sure that this is not the intent of this sweet natured and well accomplished film, but the driving concept of Under the Fig Trees ultimately comes off as a little patronising: a portrayal of farm hands who are apparently presented purely upon the perceived appeal of their proletarian novelty. Diverse groups of people allocated cinematic space - wherein we can witness different lifestyles and interactions in vivid motion - is a quality which is both inherent and important to film, however, for a long while Under the Fig Trees does very little with its authentically captured portrayals, and there is the sense that poor people are just a curio in and of themselves. At one point in the first third, a worker drops a bucket, and the figs fall out ruined (yikes!), and you sort of have the suspicion that this only happens because something has to in order to arrange even the most minor sense of conflict.

Nonetheless, following this sequence, and heralded by a doomy score, the film henceforth takes on the febrile atmosphere of an office the day after a Christmas party, where awkward secrets have leaked and tentative relationships flared up to just as suddenly fizzle out. We see the teen girls argue over boys, decide not to wear religious headdress, and interact with the older women of the crew, the adolescent vaguely aware that these ladies represent a likely future. Under the Fig Trees goes on to suggest ideologies of exploitation which have wider relevance than this picturesque Tunisian grove. A key theme as the film develops is that of patriarchal oppression, with the boss being a right prick who reserves his most strident actions for the younger female members of the crew.

Under the Fig Trees review

Nonetheless, we do see the team have a nice little paddle in the stream, and an even lovelier picnic lunch, and lots of chatting about off-screen events. Even though at some point a kid faints in the heat, I have to say, I think I've had worse looking jobs. While I'm certain that IRL the situation is not quite as idyllic, Under the Fig Trees makes hard labour look for the most part like a gentle, sun kissed activity. It is filmed beautifully, with Frida Marzouk's camera moving from wide shot general spectacles of the workers in their grove context to close up specifics of the work, and there is certainly a painstaking sense of the traditional communicated. Initially, the film faithfully conveys the vicissitudes of a working day but eventually reaches for heavier themes and dramatic contrivances which challenge the credibility of its first half. Like that ill-fated bucket of earlier, Under the Fig Trees ends up somewhat imbalanced.

Under the Fig Trees is in UK/ROI cinemas from May 19th.

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