An absurd discovery, a sneaky plan, and above all, vast misunderstandings, combine in Nefta Football Club to create a crowd-pleasing farce. A potentially dangerous situation is suffused with gentle humor, turning a cliché premise into a surprising and amusing comedy—one that benefits from its fully realized and charming locale.
In the middle of the desert that marks the southern border of Tunisia with Algeria, two brothers on a moped make a stop to allow the younger one to relieve his bladder. That’s when he encounters a donkey with headphones on…a donkey that two other men are anxiously awaiting… Writer/director Yves Piat employs a setup that we usually associate with dark dramas—innocents stumbling upon a big score—but instead shifts towards levity, exploring the premise through the innocence of a young child. With perfect narrative progression, and clever dialogue throughout, Nefta Football Club is an utterly entertaining and pleasant watch.
The plot of the film results from a mix of ideas and inspirations that Piat brought together. A memory from his childhood provided the initial spark—hanging out with a friend, the director once stumbled upon a camping stove, a twisted spoon, and a huge amount of white powder in small plastic bags. They knew what it could be, absconded with all of it, only to dump everything in a river after being stumped at what to do with it. This innocence, not realizing the potential consequences of their actions, is clearly a theme Piat extends to Nefta Football Club. The setting is the other key element of the story, and came to Piat from a trip to Morocco, where he found the Saharan landscape to be quite cinematic and the concept of borders in the middle of the desert to be a puzzling oddity.
One of the strengths of the film is that, despite its big premise, the comedy of the film flows from realistic situations. Smugglers do in fact use headphones on donkeys to guide them (they use whistling sounds though rather than Adele). Another thing Piat perfectly captured was the presence of soccer in his characters’ lives, and successfully turned it into a vessel for jokes as well. Above all, the tensions of the film rely on plausible misunderstandings, and Piat does not miss a single opportunity to accentuate them or to create new ones.
Perfectly complementing the script is the casting, and it is the genuine performances that seal the deal on the avalanche of mix-ups within the film. The characters are well written and the audience gets a good idea of their personalities through their performances. The two character pairs have excellent comedic exchanges throughout—Lyes Salem and Hichem Mesbah make a hilarious pair as the odd-couple smugglers, while the kids (a potential landmine in any film) played by Eltayef Dhaoui and young Mohamed Ali Ayari, convey a compelling brotherly dynamic with their banter.
Nefta Football Club has had quite a festival run ahead of its online premiere. An obvious crowd pleaser, it played the opening night of the Palm Springs ShortFest and won audience awards in Clermont Ferrand and Aspen. Produced by the French company Les Valseurs (also responsible for one of 2019’s other most acclaimed shorts, Guaxuma), the film is on the short list of the 2020 César in France, and having qualified through an additional jury prize at Aspen, must also be considered one of the early contenders for Oscar. In the meantime, Yves Piat is already working on a feature film filled with intrigue and set in Jerusalem.