Erige Sehiri presents "Sous les figues", her first feature film
With Sous les figues, director Erige Sehiri signs a powerful and poetic debut feature film about rural youth in Tunisia. The film received funding from Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, co-managed by the Institut français and the CNC.
Updated on 22/03/2023
Could you tell us about your career as a director?
I started out as a radio journalist, then worked as a fixer and reporter. I worked in the United States, Canada and Europe. So I had other lives before film – I even worked in finance! But that was all in order to fund my first documentary. Subsequently I was a reporter in Jerusalem for French channels, which gave me the opportunity to film two documentaries in the region. When the Tunisian revolution broke out at the end of 2010, I was offered a job as a correspondent there. It was at that point that I really had to choose between journalism and cinema. I wanted to show what was happening in Tunisia in a more cinematographic way, which I did in my first short film, Le Facebook de mon père, co-produced by Arte. I then discovered creative documentary writing, and it became clear to me that I wanted to devote myself to cinema. So I set up my production company in Tunisia, with the aim of creating documentaries in a country that was suddenly free. Everything was there to be done, to be said, to be told. My ambition was also to set up co-productions between France and Tunisia. In parallel to my activities as a producer, I wrote another documentary film, La Voie normale, the story of two Tunisian railway workers – one of whom is a whistleblower and the other an artist– who dream of leaving the profession but are unable to do so. French railway workers' associations also took up the film, deciding to screen it throughout France. Then it was during lockdown that I decided to write my first fiction, Sous les figues.
You were born and raised in France, but are now based in Tunisia, where you founded your company Henia Production and shot Sous les figues. Could you explain this choice to us?
At the beginning, I didn't think I would settle in Tunisia. But I wanted to take part in the transition that the country was undergoing. Then there were projects, such as the investigative media that I co-founded, Inkyfada, initially in French, then also in Arabic. Like many people from migrant backgrounds, I felt the need to return to my parents' country of origin and above all to feel useful there. Little by little, as I spent time there, I also realised that the country was full of opportunities and that it had a lot to offer me. There, my commitment became fully realised, both personally and politically. So I moved to Tunisia almost without realising it, without ever really making it a permanent reality.
What was the starting point for Sous les figues? Why did you want to film these women harvesting?
Everything started with my father's village, a place I know well, especially after ten years in Tunisia. This made me able to write as closely as possible to the characters. So I spent a lot of time with the actors and actresses, I listened to them a lot, and I wanted to take a snapshot of the country and these rural regions through them. To portray the people who live there. I wanted to start from poetry, from something intimate, to break a certain number of stereotypes. This is what makes the film universal.
How did you choose your actors and actresses? How much freedom did you give them to make the roles their own?
Originally, I had written a script for a completely different film, which told the story of a group of young people who set up a radio station in the Tunisian countryside. It was inspired by my experience: I spent three years with young people in rural areas creating web radio stations. So I launched a big casting call in my region, in secondary schools, for almost a month. That's how I met Fide (Fide Fdhili), in the street, arguing with a friend of hers. I invited her to the casting, but she wasn't interested in the radio thing at all. She told me that she works in the fields after school, like most young people. In the end, I almost changed the whole film for her, rewriting the script in three months, and started shooting it very quickly.
Sous les figues tells a story that takes place almost exclusively in one place, during a single day. How did this choice come about?
When I went to the fig orchards, I discovered a living tableau, with trees, fruit, men, women, and filled crates. Through the bond that these people form with each other in the workplace, I glimpsed something: a grace, a poetry, a light. I saw cinema, with a unique setting, faces, people talking. I wanted to rediscover this cinema of origins, like the earth, like the work that these women do, which goes back to the dawn of time. However, this created an obstacle to getting this type of film produced. I therefore decided to self finance the start of the film so I could then go and find partners. This was not a film that could be written, it had to be made. By showing it, I was able to find funding to help me finish shooting the film. So the film comes from a real desire for cinema, supported by a small team and a very limited budget.
Sous les figues is rich in symbols. Was it a deliberate move on your part to play with stereotypes to make them resonate with the modernity of your characters?
The orchard is a rather magical place, an ancestral, almost sacred space. It is populated by characters whose gestures are also ancient, yet at the same time these young girls carry something very modern within them. First of all by their way of speaking, their way of being connected, but also because they are the ones leading the dance in this human choreography. The film is built around these contrasts: between heaven and earth, modernity and tradition, between these young women and this patriarchal society. These young people have lived through a revolution. Even if they don't talk about it, it is still present in their way of being and expressing themselves. It is their faces that carry the film above all.
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