An example of the laziness rife in digital filmmaking, Erige Sehiri’s Under the Fig Trees employs a haphazard handheld cinematography that echoes the immediacy of prosumerism (or, the increased involvement of consumers in production processes), with a color grade drastically alien to the environs Sehiri seems intent on subsuming her characters within. The film observes the casual dynamics of laborers on an orchard in northwest Tunisia; a demographic collection whose interaction unfurls some ideological insight into their gendered, religious, and generational rifts. The grand issue, however, is that these conversations — elicited from either moments of mundanity or contentious frictions between opposing perspectives — offer little in the way of characterization; in fact, the dialogue only works to suffuse these individuals with straw. Uncomplicated discourses engender anonymity. Perhaps the most heated moment in the film stems from such aimless diatribe, which surrounds the issue of being able to, quote, “fix him.” If this moment weren’t peremptorily contextualized within a disagreement on conservative ideologies, it might play as parodic.
The worst offender, however, beyond the screenwriterly pontification of the interpersonal, is the completely avoidable sludge of log-level coloration. Greenery is gray; skin and light too. This textureless blot of what can only be imagined as beautiful landscapes is the quaff of vitality. There is no life in the image, its barrenness further accentuated by meandering shot-reverse-shot sequences, its estrangement provided by the handheld camera (not just of space, but also of its inhabitants). Frankly, it boggles the mind as to why this has to be a film. (Such an aggressive quandary is perhaps reductive, purposefully obfuscating the fact that time-based media is certainly more reproducible than most other mediums today, but regardless…). With such unyielding care placed in the formal qualities of the work, and with seemingly more attentiveness fostered in the textual faculties of the piece, based solely on dialogue, why could this not be a short story? Why must there be images? The images here, in fact, only hinder the potential for evocation. What could have been impressionistic understandings of landscape, affective dynamics imagined, instead becomes a dull and literal rendition of unfinished photorealism.
Titled Under the Fig Trees (or “Under the Tree,” as a direct translation from its Arabic title), the film is composed of dialogues taking place under, well, a collection of trees. There might be something respectable in its unembellished nature, if not ultimately for a coda that offers a romantically tinged basking wherein the cast sings together until overwritten by a melancholic musical score that exhausts. Suggested here is a kind of connective tissue between these people and their schisms. And if it’s only this commingling of contrivances and characters, each of whom could be aptly discerned as conjectural analogues, and built toward this gesture of shared experience, then perhaps this writer has missed something. Perhaps this uncharitable interpretation has overlooked a centrifugal lattice upon which these characters interact and are interwoven. This might, indeed, be so, but the eyes that watch the work don’t lie, and in taking in Under the Fig Trees’ near monochromatic totality, it’s hard to find much to confront here other than a deluge of triviality.
DIRECTOR: Erige Sehiri; CAST: Ameni Fdhili, Fide Fdhili, Feten Fdhili; DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement; IN THEATERS: October 19; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.