Sofia Alaoui is an Arab filmmaker who grew up, as she says, “between China and Morocco.” Her mother is French and her father is from Morocco. What I love about this filmmaker is that she is expansive as a person. Sofia has really connected with herself on a deep level, and that is reflective in her work. “Animalia” is her feature debut. The film has been labeled as a sci-fi film, but I would argue, and so would she, that the film is more supernatural with sci-fi elements. Watching this film from my couch, as I’m covering Sundance remotely, I noticed that my dog was as engrossed in this film as I was. My dog is a five-month-old puppy with a very short attention span, yet this film commanded both of our attention.
While talking to Sofia about her film, she really thought it was important to bring attention to living things that were not human in the film, like a supernatural presence, the animals, and the earthly elements of the film. In her eyes, all of it is living, and should be paid attention to as such. In the film, we follow a Moroccan girl named Itto, played by Oumaïma Barid, when she is caught in a global crisis that brings panic as there seems to be some kind of alien invasion on the planet. Itto’s trajectory throughout the film begins with her as a spoiled rich girl who is pregnant by her very rich husband. From there, she grows into an independent woman who becomes stronger when adversity comes her way. The aesthetic of this film is gorgeous and reminded me of my time in Iceland last year. There is so much beauty in this world, so much beauty that really should be cared for.
What brought you to this project?
I was born in Morocco and then I grew up between China and Morocco. My mother is French and my father is Moroccan. I had this kind of multiple identity. I lived in Paris for eight or nine years, and then I came back to Morocco where I created my own production company. When I came back to Morocco, I experienced it in a new way. Coming back, I felt I was being put in a box within the dogma of the religion and within the traditions of the country. This was before I decided to start making the film, but it was my observation at the time.
Simultaneously with moving back to Morocco, I was doing a lot of traveling. On one of my trips, I had been to Greenland. I was there for three months. The country is so expansive and beautiful. It is this immense country with a wide landscape accompanied by the beauty of the northern lights. When I was there, I developed a deep connection with what was around me. It was such an amazing experience to be in that country and at night watching the stars.
I started thinking to myself, ‘What kind of life did I want to lead?’ I started to get interested with the life out there in Greenland and I got into mythology and a different kind of spirituality that connected to all parts of the world. I just wanted to explore that. When you are born in Morocco, you are a Muslim. You don’t ask why, it’s just what you are. Through my travels and as time went on, I started to have new ideas of my community. I wanted to use film to reflect that.
Also, I am a film lover. I was raised on Asian cinema, Russian cinema, but also US movies. I saw how movies can help you through your daily life. It expands your mind, and you start to see things differently.
I saw in the description the film was put into the sci-fi genre, but for me, it was more than that. It connected with me on a deeply spiritual level. The cinematography really brought that out for me. Can you talk about how you see yourself in the genre?
In the past, I was not a fan of sci-fi films. In “Animalia”, there are thematic aspects of the film that bring in sci-fi, but it is more of a naturalistic supernatural film. I did a lot of research about people who had supernatural experiences with death, experiences like having their soul leave their bodies and then return. I was inspired by these stories. It was a challenge to leave aspects of the film unexplained and let the audience experience the film for themselves. These ideas were pulled from the screenplay. We would use the screenplay as the foundation, and then we’d improvise. It is important to know what kind of film you are making. If not, it’s really complicated for the actors, the DP, and really everyone on set. The screenplay and the aesthetic of the film was very precise. It was important that anyone involved in “Animalia” understood the ideas in the film.
There are two films and one artist that inspired the aesthetic of the film. One is “Under the Skin.” There were many references to the film, but probably the thing that stayed with me the most was Scarlett Johansson in her form and how she carried herself similar to an animal. The other film was “Stalker,” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. This film inspired the clouds that emerge when they are walking through the desert. It was really interesting to me how visually you can express the invisible and supernatural.
The artist is Mark Tobey. He is a mythical and experimental artist. There is a lot that inspired the aesthetics of the film through his paintings. The visual aspects in the film that reflect our universe were very inspired by his work.
Can you talk to me about how you found Oumaïma Barid for the starring role of Itto?
I did my casting all around Morocco because I wanted non-professional actors for most of the roles. The film’s cast is about ninety percent non-professional actors. For Itt,o I wanted to find someone who could speak French, Arabic, and Berber. Berber is Morocco’s native language. There are these themes of identity and different classes in the film. Because of this, it was very important that this girl could speak three languages.
We had been searching all over Morocco for Itto. When I met Oumaïma Barid in Agadir in South Morocco, she seemed so fragile and very shy. This was my first impression, but as I got to know her and heard her speak, she was not this fragile and shy girl. I could see that she was very strong. She knew what she wanted in her life and this complimented the duality of her character. I realized at that point that I wanted to cast her for the role. I wanted the character to break the stereotype. In the beginning, Itto appears to be a “perfect woman” in her society. She is the person her society wants her to be, but she is not really that person. People often judge on first impressions, but actually we are not who we pretend to be. Oumaïma and Itto were really interesting for that.
Can you talk about the significance of Itto being pregnant and bringing a new life into this film?
There is a lot of symbolism in this film. I was working on bringing the symbolism out of the environment Itto finds herself in. That is why I love cinema because you can play with this symbolism through what you see onscreen. The pregnancy could be seen as the end of the world, but for me, it was about a new world to come. The pregnancy shows that there could be a new beginning for a new generation. The pregnancy symbolizes a legacy. It’s about what you will teach and what you will give to this new beginning. So there is a hope of building something else.
I love that I don’t necessarily know what’s going on, but I know that I’m transfixed, with the elements and the colors and the performances.
I didn’t want to show how the world had changed, because that is very complex. It would be another dogma. For me, it was important to finish the story with seeing what the main character has become. I wanted to show her trajectory from beginning to end. I wanted to show that when you are connected to yourself, it connects to something bigger.
I love the whole animal aspect to the film. Can you talk about that choice of bringing all of these animals into the film?
The animals were present in my first film, but only in the sky. For the feature film, I knew that I needed to incorporate my audience. Like I said, I’m not a big fan of science fiction. It’s really hard and it was really disappointing when I see a film where I can see the audience. Also, with this mystical question regarding our bodies, I think it gives a sense to our world because animals and trees are living entities. They are, and we are not respecting our world. In the living form, it’s important to take a look at all of our environment.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope people will understand the intent of the film and experience that. I think cinema can be like a meditation where you put your life on pause and reflect on what you see onscreen. That is why I love going to the cinema, writing screenplays, and also being a director. Having cinema in my life inspires my direction. I just hope that within watching the film, people can have an experience that will inspire their direction.
Anything you’ve learned from the filmmaking process that you can share with our readers?
As this is my first feature, I’m still in the process of learning, but I really learned a lot through making this film. I’ve learned from making a short film to a feature that it can be difficult to know yourself as a director. It can be hard to resist following the status quo and fighting for what you want to make. For this first feature, I really had to fight for the film I wanted to make. There are all of these stereotypes of Moroccan people, and I wanted to break those stereotypes onscreen. People told me to forget the supernatural elements for the film. I said, “No, this is the kind of film I want to make.” It wasn’t really a fight, but more of a statement. I’m an Arab filmmaker and I wanted to make the kind of film that brings new ideas to the screen. When you feel inside of you what you want to do, stay focused on that. It can be hard when people put you in a box, but you need to stay true to you, and break the stereotypes of how people may first see you.