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Cannes Film Festival: Director Erige Sehiri of UNDER THE FIG TREES

Director Erige Sehiri highlights Amazighi culture through an authentic and genuine story-line.

AM: As a French-Tunisian director, how did you tackle your Tunisia-based film?
Basically, if my father didn’t make it to France 45 years ago, I would have been like the girls in my film so I really identify with them. The second layer is that it’s an Amazigh Berber village and it is a population that is underrepresented in our media. It was important for me to celebrate them and not mock them as it’s often the case. I was preparing for another film in the same region and as I was auditioning, I would ask the locals what they did during summertime, and they would tell me that they work in farms. So, I decided to go and visit the farms and look at their working conditions as we had a lot of women who have been through work accidents and fell of the truck. It’s a social film but I wanted to show the light in this tragedy, and I pushed myself to think what their last day would look like, before a truck accident, where every moment counts and surprises await the characters. It’s a solar film that celebrates life.

AM: Tell us more about the shooting conditions
We wanted to keep it simple, I wanted to focus on their faces and voices, but the d├ęcor was under the trees all day long which felt a little suffocating. When you pick figs, you have to look up all the time but you don’t see the sky because the trees are very thick. Another challenge was that the film was shot during real harvest time, and we didn’t want the figs to be wasted, so we had real farmers and we integrated them in the scenes and actually followed their path and working schedule. We also had to respect the land and deal with water shortages in the area. There were no hotels so we stayed at my grandparent’s house. The crew was very small and that’s why it had a documentary vibe. We had limited financial resources at the beginning, as I was shooting, writing, producing and looking for funds at the same time.

AM: And why did you choose non-professional actors?
Working with young non-professional actors meant that I had to talk to their families and convince them that we were shooting for two months with young women and men together. However, I identify with these people and I needed them to be genuine with their accent which we often don’t hear. It was important for me to give them a voice and I couldn’t imagine having actors trying to replicate that. The film wasn’t about trying, it was about being simple, real and authentic. People told me I wouldn’t find talents there so I wanted to challenge them with my powerful cast.

AM: And what does Tunisian cinema need to become more globally known?
I think it needs a vision, financing and to become a priority in education and culture. The more we work on that, the more we’ll have an audience and hence produce more. We are on our way; we are freer as directors to tackle diverse topics and we no longer wait for governmental support. But it’s still challenging for the cinema industry overall around the world.

AM: Would you say that the young generation of Tunisians is more liberal?
Deeper in the rural society there is a rise of conservatism because it’s their way for protecting their identity. I am personally more liberal and we need to have more openness and access to culture. For example, one of the girls in the film had access to the internet and was on Facebook, but this one-way access had a dark side; she was looking for a relationship and ended up with an extremist who brainwashed her into the values he wanted her to follow. This is very dangerous because they have access to one side and not to the rest of the world. When she came on set it liberated her and she was exposed to the real world.

AM: How does it feel to be part of the Directors' Fortnight feature films selection?
It’s an opportunity because I have access to promote the rest of the projects I want to make. It’s a beautiful moment for the girls of the film to flaunt what they represent. It’s my first fiction film, I don’t feel the pressure or completion. Also, this film is dedicated to my father and his culture and story.

Synopsis: Among the trees, young women and men working the summer harvest develop new feelings, flirt, try to understand each other, find – and flee – deeper connections.

By Victor N.