Cannes 2022 – Erige Sehiri, director of “Sous les figs”: “Offers actors a space for expression”

Release Date: 21/05/2022 – 09:30

Selected by Director’s Fortnight, the film, one of the three Tunisians present this year in Cannes, has the special thing about taking place in a single day.

Can you tell us a little about your career as an instructor?
It was only natural that I started making documentaries. I could film myself what interests me in the other. It made my desire for cinema more accessible. And that was my school. As a French-Tunisian, I felt the need and necessity of producing films in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution, and especially documentaries. Firstly because we could not express ourselves freely before then, and also because it had become essential to repair wounds, to see ourselves in the face, to know our history and let the young people rewrite it.

How do you present Sous les figner in a few words?
An outdoor camera where stories and relationships are intertwined during a harvest day.

How did you come up with the idea for this movie?
I was preparing a casting for another movie and I fell in love with Fidé, a high school girl. I learn that she spends all her summers working in the field. I was already interested in these workers, those also called truck women, who are transported in the back of a pick-up truck like cattle. Inspired by them, I suddenly decided to change films and be particularly interested in seasonal workers, for whom working in the fields or the orchard is both a suffocating necessity and a space for freedom to be together or meet boys.

You’re talking about a closed session. So unique outdoor decor?
Yes, because I needed light, simplicity and naturalness just like the women in the movie. The enclosed space under the trees brings an intensity to emotions and gestures. We were limited in space because it reduces the possibilities of staging, but we had a great sense of freedom. We filmed with a single camera, without machinery, in a kind of large collective choreography, where the actors and actresses met the real workers in the middle of the fig harvest.

Were there any decisive steps in relation to the production?
I knew Palmyre Badinier, who had accompanied me on my previous documentaries, and I had met Didar Domehri two years earlier in a support program for female directors. When I told them about under the figs, they immediately embraced my need to write and direct with a lot of spontaneity and to make a film of desire. They got involved very quickly without having even asked for funding, which was still possible not so long ago.

Did you have a lot of written text, or did you leave room for some improvisation?
I chose from the start to work with non-actors and to film the rehearsals with their costumes to capture moments of sincerity. I did not give them written dialogue, but they knew the trajectory of their characters and the relationships they had with each other, as well as the intentions and structures of the scenes. They improvised and I wrote about. It was their words, their way of speaking. They have game intelligence.

Were you looking for a decor, a specific atmosphere?
I shot around the village of Kesra in northwestern Tunisia, my father’s village of origin. As a kid, I used to go to the summer to pick figs. For the movie, I was looking for large orchards with tall trees. We even molded the trees! They had to enclose us while shutting the light through.

When did you shoot?
We shot during the fig harvest in 2020 and then in 2021. We were limited by the fig season and dependent on the weather! The film takes place over a single day. We had to relate to what the environment offered us. The funniest and most touching was the cohabitation between the film crew and the farm workers who were there for the real harvest. Sometimes they forgot that we were making a movie and reacting to certain scenes as if it were life.

Have you developed a specific working method?
I have certainly developed a method that will evolve further, but the most important thing for me is to offer an expression space to the actors and especially to capture those who listen and not just those who speak.

When was the movie finally finished?
The day before the Cannes Film Festival.

What do you expect from this selection at Directors’ Fortnight?
First of all, a moving public, a premiere of the film that takes it far I hope … And the possibility that I have more funds for the next film in preparation!

Collected by Patrice Carré

© photo credit: Elise Ortiou Campion

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