Sundance 2023 Interview: Sofia Alaoui on the Uncommon Compassion Behind “Animalia”

At the start of “Animalia,” Itto (Oumaïma Barid) might be mistaken for one of the many housekeepers buzzing about the palatial estate of her parents-in-law, more comfortable in the kitchen chopping chicken and cracking jokes with those who are supposed to be waiting on her than getting the bedrest that her mother-in-law insists on in a lush yet empty room upstairs. Married to the son of a kaid in Morocco means never stepping outside the gates to see the public they serve, and while Itto followed her heart in wedding Amine (Mehdi Dehbi), she could only be so conscious that by entering the union, she was also entering a gilded cage, bereft of the kind of personal interactions she was used to growing up in the village.

In Sofia Alaoui’s brilliant subversion of an alien invasion tale, there’s an extraterrestrial threat that induces the entire family out into the world, where Itto is separated from Amine and his parents while eight months pregnant and left to find her way to safety on her own. Yet the writer/director uses the thought of strangers above to consider the alienation that’s already happened among us in a society where the wealth disparity between the rich and poor makes it unfathomable to understand how the other side lives and in a religious country such as Morocco, a higher being is seen in very different ways when there are so many who don’t appear to be looked after at all. The pandemonium leads Itto into a cafe where she meets Fouad (Fouad Oughaou), a waiter who leads a humble life surely not unlike the one she would have herself if she hadn’t fallen in love with Amine and with the need to evacuate for them both, the two have a rare opportunity to connect with one another and reencounter the places that have shaped them in a new light as they seek refuge.

As bold as the central idea is in “Animalia” where the possibility of the apocalypse allows for the radiance of our shared humanity to shine through, the execution is equally spectacular as Alaoui finds otherworldly scenes on earth, with the mysterious and alluring glow of the unknown as likely to come from an exquisite sunset over the valleys of Morocco as the potential invaders in the sky. It was after the filmmaker came back from film school in Paris that she began to see her homeland again with fresh eyes, first making the award-winning short “So What If the Goats Die” with a nonprofessional cast whose real lives in the region could bleed into the story of a supernatural encounter, and in her feature debut, a blend of reality and genre elements yields an experience distinctive in seeming tantalizingly out of reach except through cinema yet intimate in how heartfelt it is. On the eve of the film’s premiere at Sundance, Alaoui spoke about how she got the clarity to see the whole universe in her immediate surroundings in Morocco, shooting a sci-fi story as if it were a documentary and how casting helped her avoid anyone jumping too quickly to conclusions about the characters they would play.

You’ve mentioned before that returning to Morocco after film school helped you see it anew. Did the seed for this immediately come to you then?

I rediscovered [Morocco] just as a human being, but I didn’t say to myself at the beginning, “Okay, I have a film.” I used to travel a lot, a few months abroad when I need to be disconnected from our daily routine and the world, and I’d been in Greenland for many months. I experienced deeper connection with nature and our environment and I [thought], “Okay, maybe I can question my society and our connection to our world using science fiction” because as a filmmaker and as a spectator, I love movies that can help me to travel in another universe, films like Tarkovsky’s because it’s a real voyage through a universe, so I wanted to create something like this.

You struck that balance so well in “So What If the Goats Die,” having science-fiction elements in something that felt very grounded. Was that a trickier process with this?

The short film was really important for that because you always have some ideas, but before you experience them, it’s only theoretical. I did some documentaries before and what I love the most in documentary is the idea of working with reality, so in the short, I really wanted to work with natural landscapes that could feel like you are on another planet. I worked with non-professional actors and the settings are real. We just used what we had and it was really important to have these really grounded elements for me, but also to mix it to have a marriage with this science-fiction element and all these VFX that are there in the film. This is what’s really challenging to marry. We had a lot of prep for that because even with the camera I wanted to be really flexible because we had non-professional actors. It was challenging I think more for the VFX supervisor than for me because you had to work with my crazy idea of doing something really documentary-style.

Did the actual geography of the land and the social strata of it in terms of rich versus poor inform how you structured the story?

It’s a voyage. [Itto] is a woman stuck in her family-in-law, but this patriarchal family is actually a symbol of the conservative society and you feel from the very beginning that she doesn’t fit in. She’s Berber, which is the native of Morocco. We have the same history [as the indigenous community in America]. I have native roots and there were natives in Morocco before the Arabs came. Nowadays, it’s not an insult [to be called Berber] but it’s [considered a reflection of] class. When you speak French, you are really great because there is this colonial relation. And then you are Arabic, it’s a little less than French, and then there is the Berber, and at the beginning, she speaks French but with a [strong] accent. She doesn’t fit into this society, and the question of language is really important to the film because the more she’s going through this voyage and she’s meeting people like her — people that she wouldn’t meet actually in her daily life if the supernatural events didn’t [happen] — she’s starting to speak and to accept who she is. At the beginning, she’s ashamed because this society creates shame about who you are and you [feel like you] need to fit in.

Oumaïma Barid is quite captivating as Otto. How did you discover her?

Like I say, I love documentaries and what I love the most is meeting people. With our job, you meet so different people and it’s so nourishing and when I met her, it was an inevitability because like [how her character is] in the first frame of the film, she [appeared] fragile. But when I heard her story [I came to recognize] she’s really tough and I’m so proud of her because I wanted to have a main character that could help me to play with the stereotypes. We all have stereotypes. You meet someone and you judge [them], even if you’re a nice [person], and I think that Itto and every character of the film could be judged, but we don’t know them until the end of the film. The husband can be [seen as] the bad bourgeois man, but he is trapped in this patriarchal society as [much as] Itto, so I just wanted to play with how the spectator could project what kind of people they are.

You’ve involved Fouad Oughaou in all your films since “So What If the Goats Die,” which was the first time he actually had acted on camera. Is he now someone to build around?

Fouad is an amazing guy, and it was a nice encounter four years ago when I did the short film, so when you have such an amazing experience, you want to work with the same people [again]. He inspired me a lot for this feature. The name of the character [in “Anamalia”] is Fouad because we had a lot of talks [off-camera] and he doesn’t believe in God and he lives in this village and he seems really sad [about that], so this character is quite Fouad and I think he was really happy to express himself through this character. Art and making cinema, it’s about expressing something that’s here and you just need to vomit what you want to say.

There may be too many to mention, but was there anything that happened unexpectedly once the film starts taking on a life of its own that you could get excited about?

The actors [became] so connected to the screenplay and the story, there were two scenes where they gave me more [than what was on the page]. It’s this thing between Fouad and Itto when they are at the shepherd [in the valley] and she prays. Fouad comes and he is having a cigarette and they have this chat, and he was so involved in the scene, he insults her [saying] and she’s [processing it], “The God that you’re praying actually, it’s the god of money,” and it’s putting more water in the ocean [between them]. A scene like this was a conflict between the two characters and when they gave me more than that what I wrote, it was great.

It was quite moving, and the life of this movie is only beginning, but what’s it like getting to this point where you’ve lived with it for some time and getting it ready to go out into the world?

Yeah, it’s showing yourself and sometimes it can be hard. It’s exciting, but also frightening because this film is about an awakening and the questions in the film are questions that I ask to myself in my daily life because I am like the character living in this society. I live in Morocco and I am a woman, and even though I don’t want to be put in a box, in Europe, there is dogma [regarding] how to be yourself in a society. Even in Western society, so many things are put on you [and the question becomes] how can you can be deeply free to live the life that you want to? Because sometimes if you don’t question yourself, it can feel like you’re putting on a mask and you’re just passing the years and you don’t know who you are. But for me, it’s so important to ask myself all these questions through the films, so showing the film at Sundance, it’s amazing, but also really frightening because I’m showing so much of myself to the world.

“Animalia” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20th at 12:05 pm at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, January 21st at 1 pm at the Redstone Cinemas in Park City, January 22nd at 6:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, January 26th at 3:45 pm at the Holiday Village Cinemas in Park City, and January 27th at 11:30 am at the Egyptian Theater in Park City. It will also be available virtually from January 24th through 29th.