A new vision

Sofia Alaoui on deconstruction, interconnectedness and Animalia

by Jennie Kermode

Oumaima Barid in Animalia
Oumaima Barid in Animalia Photo: Wrong Films & Srab Films

A big hit on the festival circuit and now in cinemas in the US, Sofia Alaoui’s Animalia is an extraordinary feature début which promises a still more extraordinary future career. I was delighted when the director agreed to discuss it, and although we had no translator to assist, she had plenty to say.

The film follows a young, pregnant woman who has married into a wealthy family. When she’s alone in their remote mansion, a strange incident occurs, with military units rushing to surround the nearby lake. It’s just the start of an extraterrestrial engagement that will plunge her world into chaos, but the journey that follows has unexpected consequences, leading her to reevaluate her life and the society she’s part of.

Animalia Photo: Wrong Films & Srab Films

I fell in love with the film, I tell Sofia, from the moment that I saw its gorgeously framed open shots, but what really impressed me was the confidence with which she shifted the mood and the type of imagery she was using as the heroine, Itto (played by Oumaima Barid) left the house and began to experience the world differently.

“I just wanted to create a movie where there's an event that could shake a society, could shake people’s beliefs, and it was really important to make stuff messy in a way,” she says, explaining that she wanted to challenge linear ways of thinking. “It was about deconstruction.

“With the colours, I wanted to create contrast to show how the rich people – here in Morocco, but I think in the world – are so disconnected from their environment. You know, there is this rich house, and the journey of Itto is a journey through the social class clash. In Morocco there's so much difference between places and people. The journey of Itto permits us to see Morocco, I think, in a really real way, because you cannot only see the rich people, but you cannot only see the poor people. Sometimes in the Arab movies, you only see the misery of people, but the true image of Morocco is to contrast all this.”

Itto is an interesting character to do that with because she's from a poor background herself.

Animalia Photo: Wrong Films & Srab Films

“For me, it was really important to create this Berber background,” she says. “I have indigenous origins, and I think we have the same history, even if this is a Muslim country or a Christian country, because actually the Berber were in Morocco before the Muslims. In Morocco right now, in 2024, there is still racism. The poor are usually the Berber. It's really rare to see a Berber in a really important position. There is more and more, of course, but still the Arabs are mostly really poor and the people who will go into Europe illegally are people from those places originally.

“I felt it was very important to have this woman who is in this rich family, but is not accepted because she is from another origin, because actually, it's all about money, all about where you come from, what you can bring. It's a really conservative way of thinking.”

Towards the end, we see people who have abruptly been made refugees by the crisis. I like the way her camera moves among them, showing the relationships they have to one another and, through that, their humanity.

Animalia Photo: Wrong Films & Srab Films

“Yeah,” she says. “There is often a military checkpoint at the entrance of the big cities and people are nothing. Because in the alien invasion, the supernatural arrival, like in the movie Arrival, it's not everywhere. So they just wanted to escape from those places, to go in a safe place in main cities maybe, but they cannot have access to it.”

She mentions a scene in which we see a character who has money and connections passing through a checkpoint like this. “It's all, once again, about the class clash, you know? Who can escape, who cannot escape.”

Is Itto’s pregnancy part of what is changing her? it’s an experience that often brings people much closer to their bodies, and in a film like this, where there’s a lot of focus on animal behaviour, it seems to make her more aware of her own animality.

“At the beginning, she is more an image of the nice, straight young woman that this Muslim Moroccan society wants her to be,” she reflects. “The perfect daughter in law, the perfect housewife. But through this journey, she thinks about the mask, the fakeness that sometimes you need to put to live in society, to just go out. And she is learning to be herself. If you say she's beginning to be like the animals, it's because she's maybe trying to follow her instincts, and it's something that I really admire.”

Animalia Photo: Wrong Films & Srab Films

What was it like, at a practical level, dealing with the various animals on set?

“It was really complicated!” She laughs in a way that I’ve heard first time filmmakers laugh before when they’re reflecting on what they’ve done to themselves. “We were a small movie with all those elements, and sometimes it was messy because we didn't have the animals that we wanted to have during the set. In the script it was written that the sheep was going to hug my main actress. It's a really important scene. And during the shooting, I discovered that, two days before, the guy from the production just talked to a shepherd and said ‘Okay, let me rent your sheep.’ And so the sheep didn't want to hug my main actress. So it was ‘Oh my God, what can I do to make it work?’ It was always that during the shooting, always like ‘Oh my God, what did I write? How can I make it work? So it was also a human experience, to face those challenges.”

Then there was the challenge of creating a distinctive vision of extraterrestrial influence, despite having a limited budget.

Animalia Photo: Wrong Films & Srab Films

“I love the supernatural. I love sci-fi, but when it's really grounded. I ask myself a lot of those questions that are in the film, and I'm passionate about the universe, about the truth of our existence. So for me, it was about trying to make some effects that could be real. So the clouds were really natural to me because I remember on Facebook or Instagram many pictures of weird clouds. And there's always a weird website to say ‘This is aliens.’

“I was like, ‘Yeah, it's so interesting to use something really weird like clouds and make it more supernatural, but using this real element that is close.’ And also, I've been in Greenland, and I love the Northern Lights, so I was like, ‘Maybe we can put some kind of Northern Lights in some weird clouds. That could work.”

There are conversations about religion at various points in the film and, towards the end, a striking incident in a mosque.

“Yeah. The conversation she had with her husband. What, for me, that’s about, as I said at the beginning, is the deconstruction of what we think is reality, what we think about the dogma of how we are. We think we know the truth, but we don’t know anything. And for me, doing that in the mosque was a really symbolic way to deconstruct the dogma of how people could think. I think it was really beautiful.”

Animalia Photo: Wrong Films & Srab Films

She recalls a phrase from Hermetic philosophy which she can’t immediately work out how to express in English: ‘as above, so below; as within, so without.’ Explaining that she read it in an ancient book, she tells me that the interconnectedness of all things is an essential part of the concept of her film.

“We live in this individualistic society where people think about their comfort, their money – but actually, we're still living all together on this planet, and I think this is the most important thing, that we are all connected by that experience. It's one of the main challenges of the future.”

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