Why did you want to film in Nefta ?
Initially, I wanted to film in Zagora, in the Moroccan desert, and that’s actually where the script began, on the Algerian border. I’m pretty familiar with the region around Zagora since I spent six days walking across the desert with a guide a few years ago, and I went there several times while scouting locations for the film. I was captivated by the desert land of the Zagora plain, and I knew from the beginning that the desert would have an important role in the film. After I had all my scouting done in southern Morocco and I’d contacted the local authorities, we eventually decided to make the film in Tunisia, barely a month before shooting began and primarily for economic reasons. The Nefta region was ideal because on the one hand it was still on the Algerian border, as the script had it, and the landscapes were not too far apart (from an hour to an hour and a half at most) and they looked like the ones around Zagora.
Why were you interested in the connection to soccer?
I like soccer but not the business of soccer or the competitive aspect. I like soccer with no stakes because you can play it anywhere with two, three or twenty-two people – all you need is a ball. I wanted to touch on the connection between the game and the stakes, the spontaneous aspect versus the element of calculation, the difference between childhood and adolescence that the two brothers symbolize. Mohammed takes a big risk when he tries to make money off his discovery, but he’s stopped by his little brother’s innocence, who just wants to keep playing with him like before and unconsciously refuses to admit he’s growing up. It’s also obviously a nod to the whole business of doping.
How did you select and direct the young actors?
It was absolutely essential for me to take my time with the cast, since that’s 80% of the work of coaching. First off, the Tunisian executive producers suggested children from their lists, who were mainly from higher socio-cultural backgrounds and didn’t really match the children I was looking for and were often pushed into it by their parents. They had so much pressure on them to succeed that they mostly acted like little adults and forgot to have fun in the role plays that I set up. Their language was also too polished, too restrained and that’s why, after several days, I decided to organize an impromptu casting call in the very working-class neighborhoods of Tunis… That’s when I auditioned a hundred or so children until I found El Taief Dhaoui whose naturalness and poise corresponded to what I wanted for the role of Mohammed. For Abdallah’s character, it was more complicated because the period for casting that the producers had allowed me was over and I wasn’t completely satisfied with the young actor that I’d found for the role. One Sunday morning, a few days before shooting was to begin, we were walking through a neighborhood center with Raja, our translator, when we saw a dance class where I immediately noted little Dali and knew he was the character. Then we had to convince his father to bring his son into the desert outside the school holidays. I made sure there was a connection between my two young actors and that they worked well together. I had them rehearse the script so they had it down pat; I was even prepared to rewrite parts of it so that they felt completely comfortable. On the set, I only gave them a few very succinct directions.
How did you go about choosing the scenery and framing?
I knew what I wanted for the scenery since I’d already done the scouting in Morocco. So we set off with the cinematographer, the focus puller and a fixer to find scenery that I liked in the Redeyef mountains and the entire Tozeur region. We discussed the framing with Valentin Vignet based on what I’d previously drawn out on the storyboard. I like having drawings there for the cutting out because it means you can quickly communicate intentions and ideas.
Are you particularly fond of comedies?
Not really, and anyway it would be hard to call this film a comedy – it’s more like a drama with moments of comedy. Moreover, I don’t like categorizing cinematic genres since life itself is full of funny moments and dramatic moments… Actually, I like writing and staging up people who initially seemed to have everything planned except… life, which by nature is unpredictable. That can quickly lead to comedic situations or conversely to very dramatic ones – everything depends on your point of view.
Have you discovered any advantages that the short film form provides?
It’s basically a constraint that forces you to be more efficient and creative so you can find the shortcuts in directing that let you get straight to the point. To my mind, short films are essentially a restrictive exercise. Making a successful short film is a challenge… in terms of pacing, of the story and world, of characters that the viewer has to identify with in a short time, and so on. Efficiency is the keyword in the exercise, along with, in most cases, difficult production conditions. On this film, for instance, we began with a few limitations: only six shooting days for eighteen minutes of film, in the middle of the desert with children ranging from eight to twelve years old, on mopeds without helmets, numerous sets, a donkey, a very tight budget and on top of that, everything in Arabic… Those are the types of constraints we had as we set out on our adventure… Luckily, my crew was excellent, especially a very in tune producer, a super organized focus puller and a rock solid cinematographer!