Ranging in age and skillfulness, the underpaid and overworked group labors with strict instructions to carefully handle the branches—breaking one is a cardinal offense—and to avoid picking unripe figs or crushing them during sorting. Their young, but no less exploitative boss Saber (Fedi Ben Achour) supervises with punishing, hawk-like ferocity.
Tight on their sun-drenched visages, some more markedly weathered than others, the camera assumes the role of a stealthy accomplice to innocuous acts of “time theft,” where the fruit-picking would-be lovers casually converse, often with flirtatious undertones, and reveal details about their previous entanglements or discuss plans for their amorous futures. Nimble cinematographer Frida Marzouk follows them from tree to tree, the greenery around them is perpetually present in the frame, collecting their changing expressions, their intimate banter and subtle body language always up close.
To fit her ideal of how a marriage should function, Sana (Ameni Fdhili), an assertive young woman, wishes for love interest Firas (Firas Amri), a bearded and burly young man with sad eyes, to abandon his gentle nature and adopt a more conservative masculine role. Meanwhile, Fidé (Fide Fdhili), the most strong-willed member of the crop of young laborers, fights back against the gossip that wishes to portray her as an amoral, sexually deviant entity. Arguments may arise between the girls, but when a common enemy threatens their safety, Fidé knows to put the bickering aside for the common good.
Not despite, but because of its simple setting, where the constant physical activity and intermittent breaks provide a dynamic backdrop for each of these characters to bloom dramatically, Sehiri accomplishes a delicate storytelling feat with “Under the Fig Trees.” Each exchange opens a new window into their individual yearnings and apprehensions beyond their need to sell their bodily prowess for cash. Far from a movie about people arduously toiling away, it’s an intricate microcosm where one can see gender and social dynamics at play, particularly in their capacity to shape how we love and befriend others.