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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (19/5/2023)

(Reviews of Under the Fig Trees; and The Other Fellow)


UNDER THE FIG TREES.


Writer-editor Ghalya Lacroix collaborated with Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche on Games of Love and Chance (2003), Couscous (2007), Black Venus (2010), Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), and both Mektoub, My Love (2017) and Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo (2019). Perhaps that's why Tunisian documentarist Erige Sehiri's feature bow, Under the Fig Trees, has a Kechichean aura, as Sehiri co-wrote the screenplay with Lacroix and Peggy Hamann. What's more, Lacroix also co-edited with Hafedh Laaridhi and Malek Kamounn.


At first light, a group of women gather at the side of a road near Kesra in north-western Tunisia to be driven to a fig orchard by foreman Gaith (Gaith Mendassi). They tease Fidé (Fidé Fdhili) about sitting in the passenger seat, while they travel in the back of the open truck. She's unconcerned by the tittle-tattle, but is intrigued to note that old friend Abdou (Abdelhak Mrabti) has reappeared five years after his family moved to Monastir. Her 17 year-old sister, Melek (Feten Fdhili), is also pleased to see him back, as they used to be an item.


Picking figs requires expertise, as the ripe fruit is delicate, while breaking a branch is considered a sacking offence. Sana (Ameni Fdhili) watches Saber (Fedi Ben Achour) snap two branches while asking him about his friend, Firas (Firas Amri). But he's not in the mood for gossiping and she moves on to another tree.


The orchard sprawls and the security guard complains to Gaith that it's impossible to protect the property because it's unfenced. He's furious that fruit has been stolen during the night and confides in Leila (Leila Ouhebi) that some of the male pickers are involved. Always money conscious, Gaith is also cross that people keep picking green figs and warns the workers to concentrate on their work and stop chattering.


Abdou quizzes Fidé about her relationship with Gaith and she jokes that it's none of his business. She refuses to be defined by men and dumps suitors when she's had enough of them. Malek inquires what she was talking to Abdou about and Fidé proves as elusive as Firas, when Sana pesters him about why he was late for work. Sidling over to Mariem (Samar Sifi), Sana confesses that she wishes Firas was a little more conservative in his attitudes, but is confidant that she can mould him into a suitable partner.


When she finally gets Firas alone, Sana asks how they are going to see each other when they return to school. He suggests the supermarket and she jokes that she'll get cold hanging around the yoghurt section. Meanwhile, Fidé helps Abdou hide some dropped figs, but Melek is worried that Gaith will tell them off, as he's just sacked Saber for breaking too many branches.


Newcomer Yosra faints and senior picker Hneya (Hneya Ben Elhedi Sbahi) tends to her. They worry she's not eaten, but Gaith is more worried about the fuss if she dies on his watch. As she recovers, the other workers knock off for lunch and pool their meals for sharing. Sana has made Firas a special dish and Fidé joshes her when she insists on feeding it to him. Mariem shows Fidé a picture she has posted on Instagram and Sana chides Firas for looking at it before joking that she might do something like that for him as a treat once they're married.


Firas is frustrated, however, as she limits their physical contact. Gaith catches him on the phone and he tells him he's setting up a date with another girl. He wants to get away (hence him hiding baskets of fruit for his accomplices to take away from the orchard) and the vaping Gaith promises to take him to the coastal market town of Nabeul, where the women are more laid back.


Spotting him along, Fidé strolls over to talk to Firas. Sana sees them and accuses Fidé of trying to steal her man. Fidé snaps back that she could get him if she wanted him, but that men don't interest her. An old man sitting nearby takes her to task for disrespecting men and Fidé reminds him that things have changed in Tunisia (and ensures he remembers that women played their part in resisting the French).


Melek catches up with Abdou and admits that she is still in love with him. He shows her the scar on his arm that reminds him of her and she's touched. However, she's called over to deposit a bucket of figs and wanders past Firas and Sana arguing. He is tired of her being so possessive and questions whether she's as pure as she cracks on to be. Trying not to eavesdrop, Melek goes in the trees for a comfort break. However, Gaith tries to force himself on her and she manages to wriggle free and return to the orchard.


As he works, Abdou is confronted by an uncle he's not seen since his parents died. He is furious with Abdou for sending bailiffs to try and evict him from land he feels should now be his. However, the uncle refuses to budge and curses Abdou for trying to disinherit his children.


At teatime, Leila reveals that she is still in love with a man who married someone else. She sings a sad song and Fidé consoles Sana when she starts to cry. Melek also looks pensive, as Hneya claims that love is hard work and inflicts a lot of suffering. As her leg is hurting, she is going to take a week off and informs Gaith as he's doling out the wages.


He gives Leila a bit extra because he relies on her and she has a legal case to fight. But Melek refuses to accept a bonus and tells Gaith she's quitting. He's annoyed with her and also admonishes Abdou for arguing with his uncle, because he owns the orchard that Gaith rents. Fidé, however, knows what happened with Melek and threatens to torch the orchard if Gaith bothers either of them again. Fuming, he accuses Firas of theft and almost gets into a fight after refusing to pay him. Leila acts as peacemaker, but the furore dies down.


While Abdou helps load crates on to a truck, Fidé, Melek, Meriem, and Sana go to the washroom. They put on make-up and the sisters leave their hair uncovered. They clamber on to the back of Gaith's truck, leaving him alone in the cab. Slowly, the vehicle winds its way along the dusty road, as dusk descends. Happy to have reclaimed a small part of their lives, the four friends start singing. Their elders smile benevolently, as they know full well that one is only young once and that time passes far too quickly.


With cinematographer Frida Marzouk bathing the action in the changing light of the day, Erige Sehiri is able to put a bucolic spin on the workplace drama. The visuals may be sun-dappled, but this is every bit as much a social realist tract as anything by Ken Loach or the Dardennes. The meticulous manner in which the fruit picking is recorded reveals Sehiri's roots in actuality (what a shame 2018's Railway Men was so little seen), but the discussion of topics like casual labour rights, the inheritance of land, the generation gap, and the significance of Islamic law and custom deftly avoids dogmatism.


Naturally, the greatest emphasis is placed on the status of women and the extent to which the access that mobile phones afford the younger generation to the wider world is changing their perceptions of issues like love, sex, and marriage, as well as how they address their seniors and the menfolk who still hold sway in a country that has rather marked time in the decade since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali helped spark the Arab Spring. But, by opting for shades of grey, Sehiri and her co-writers convey the complexities impacting upon Tunisian society rather than apportioning blame or advocating easy solutions.


They are greatly abetted in this regard by the naturalistic performances of a non-professional cast that improvised much of the dialogue in the jaunty style of Pierre de Marivaux. Particularly impressive is Fidé Fdhili, a summer fruit picker who gave Sehiri the idea for her setting after attending an open casting session. Often with her hair provocatively loose, she remains poised and assertive whether flirting with the boys, supporting Melek (who is her actual sister), teasing the prudish Sana, or giving as good as she gets from the misogynist Gaith and the grizzled war veteran.


The majority of the exchanges are filmed in close-up to give them intimacy, as well as spontaneity. Occasionally, the momentum dips, while a bit too much takes place over the course of a single working day. But the lunch and teabreak sequences are beautifully done, as is the truck-ride back to town with its promise of a better tomorrow. Yet we never get to hear anything more of the woman mentioned in the opening snippet of overheard conversation: `She took everything and left.' Perhaps there's a film in waiting about her?


THE OTHER FELLOW.


In the pre-credit sequence to Peter R. Hunt's On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), George Lazenby watches Diana Rigg speed off after he has delivered her from the clutches of two thugs on a beach and wryly remarks, `This never happened to the other fellow.' He was referring, of course, to the fact that he had taken over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, who had made novelist Ian Fleming's secret agent a screen icon. It's apt, therefore, that Australian debutant Matthew Bauer has used The Other Fellow as the title for his documentary about what the pros and cons of having such a famous name.


The survey opens with monochrome footage of Fleming admitting that he wanted a `flat, quiet name' for his spy hero and latched on to the author of a favourite tome, Birds of the West Indies. Seven decades later, however, the name James Bond is known worldwide and the release of each new picture reinforces its connotations and makes life a little bit trickier for those sharing the moniker.


Bauer introduces the men he has managed to contact and convince to appear in his film. Most acknowledge that the 007 link has been a blessing and curse, but none blame their parents, as they wouldn't have realised in the early 1960s that the franchise would capture the public imagination and endure.


In the Swedish town of Nybro, Gunnar Schäfer has not only opened a museum dedicated to 007, but he has also adopted the name and lifestyle of James Bond. As a result, he's become something of a local celebrity, while tourists flock to see the props and vehicles from the films he has acquired. But there's a sad story behind the glamour, as Schäfer/Bond's father was a fugitive from Nazi Germany and the young Gunnar became obsessed with 007 after Johannes (who was rumoured to be a spy) failed to return from a holiday in 1959 and the fantasy allowed the lonely boy to keep his father's memory alive.


Some of the other Bonds discuss the name's aura and whether they felt compelled to live up to it in their own lives. Most view the hyper-masculine aspect of the name with a mix of wariness and weariness, especially when it comes to womanising. However, some have been drawn to guns, helicopters, and skydiving.


In Philadelphia, David Contosta, the biographer of the ornithological James Bond provides some background before we hear a recording of wife Mary Wickham Bond stating how much Fleming's appropriation disconcerted her husband, especially when they started receiving late-night prank calls. Colleague Ruth Patrick concurs that the connection unsettled Bond and clumsy dramatic reconstructions show him reacting with horror to Fleming's TV revelation and newspaper headlines about Connery starring in Dr No (1962).


New York theatre director James Bond dreads the release of each new EON production, as his social media pages are flooded with comments by strangers convinced that they are the first to make tiresome jokes about the name. He grumbles about a tabloid profile that zoned in on his sexuality. Yet, for all his protestations, he appeared on David Letterman's chat show to discuss the Top 10 best things about his name. He also signed up for an ad for an online casino in Atlantic City, in which he delivers the line, `My name is Bond, James Bond.'


Sometimes simply stating the name can prove problematic, as four men aver when recalling brushes with the law. Computer programmer James Andrew Bond describes being forced to the ground at gunpoint by an aggressively sceptical officer. But one of the two Black Bonds reveals that he was sentenced to 60 days for obstructing an officer for giving his name in a cocky manner. He is now Inmate #280938 at Indiana State Prison, although he prefers to be known as `The Dark Knight' rather than 007.


In his home town of South Bend, sister Faye Ivy-Bond and cousin Lori Ivy-Bond joke about how he played up to the image. This may have counted against him when he was charged with the murder of Ramon Hamilton, which he denies in explaining how the dead man pulled a gun in a car. Across the town, a white James Bond found himself caught up in the man-hunt. He pleaded with the papers to make a distinction between him and the other fellow, but the African American Bond notes that 007 is hailed as a hero for having a licence to kill, while his guilt is taken for granted because of the colour of his skin.


Back in 1964, Bird Bond was having such a hard time with all the unwanted publicity that his wife wrote to Fleming to alert him to the situation. Friends urged him not to add an initial to distinguish himself and Bauer asks some of his interviewees why they have never changed their name if it bothers them so much.


Sharply changing tack, Bauer meets a British woman who was continuously stalked by her abusive husband, as he was always able to trace her through their son. Eventually, after briefly feeling safe after hearing unfounded rumours that her ex had died in a car crash, she changed the boy's name to James Bond to make it more difficult to track them down through a search engine. This is a chilling story and one can only presume that the woman's appearance on film means that the threat is now over.


By contrast, the Swedish Bond is still trying to discover the fate of his father. But he finds solace in a pilgrimage to Fleming's grave in the churchyard of St James's, Sevenhampton. Bird Bond made a trip of his own in the mid-60s, when he and Mary called in on Fleming unannounced at Goldeneye in Jamaica and he not only gave them lunch, but also an apology in the form of a signed book that was later auctioned for $84,000.


In Indiana, Bauer accompanies Jackie Morris to greet The Dark Knight when he is released after a hung jury trial. He meets his South Bend namesake, who wonders why the papers failed to publicise his release as much as they had his arrest. James Hart can sympathise, as the baggage associated with being christened James Bond proved too much and he changed his surname when his daughter was born to spare her the nonsense.


James Andrew Bond has named his son James Cesar Bond and he meets up with Pastor James Neal Bond and 87 year-old former oilman, James Lee Bond, from Austin, Texas, who jokes that he was a daredevil long before there was a 007. We also catch up with the mother who changed her son's name and hear James praising her for her courage and ingenuity. In order to protect them, Bauer has filmed them together in a seaside locale that has no bearing on their current whereabouts.


It's hard to shake the suspicion they're taking something of a risk in going public in this way. But their inclusion testifies to the strength of their personalities and the depth of the freedom they now clearly feel. South Bend Bond must share their sense of liberation after his own ordeal. But, for the main part, this is a largely light-hearted investigation that seems to have drawn its participants together. That said, the lawyer, doctor, soldier, helicopter pilot, and Guyanese politician who feature in the introductory line-up must feel a little shortchanged by the exercise.


The insights offered into identity and individuality are shrewd, particularly in regard to Bird Bond, who evidently found it difficult to deal with his unwanted notoriety. But the reconstructions used in this and other segments sit awkwardly, in spite of Lesley Posso's adept editing. It might have been enlightening to learn the extent to which playing Bond has impinged upon the lives of surviving 007s George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. But this is a thoughtful and admirably researched piece of work and it will be interesting to see how Bauer's follow-up, Ethanol, turns out.


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