Born to a French mother, a Moroccan father and raised for some years in China, filmmaker Sofia Alaoui grants that her upbringing had a more international expanse than most. The same could be said for her spiritual education, which pulled from Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Taoist traditions, giving the “Animalia” director a considerable leg-up on the comparative religion front.
But for all her varied influences, once Alaoui came-of-age and into adulthood she shared a familiar sense of a yearning, feeling no less stifled than those raised in more, shall we say, provincial circumstances.
“We’re all trapped by our own dogmas,” the filmmaker tells Variety. “And I didn’t want to stay locked in a set system. Be they religious or social, those values guide our existences as men and women. And I think the most beautiful path is to break free, to separate yourself order to clear your own way.”
Premiering in Sundance’s world dramatic competition, Alaoui’s feature debut “Animalia” reframes that rite-of-passage on a cosmic scale, following a young mother-to-be as she experiences an alien invasion with a dread that quietly turns liberatory.
“[For the character and in the film] this distortion opens the door to a new and different reality,” Alaoui explains. “We never willingly accept and welcome change, even if what’s menacing can also be freeing. In Chinese the word for crisis is the same for opportunity — and I wanted to explore that concept.”
“Animalia” focuses on Itto (first-timer Oumaïma Barid), a young woman of Berber origins who has married into an affluent family – a clan as Old World in their social values as they are keyed in to contemporary power structures. And once the invasion strands Itto in an arid desert, leaving her without the shield of wealth or social reinforcement, she is finally able to bloom.
“Everything around us can be transcendental,” Alaoui says. “There’s a difference between religion and spirituality. [And] I’ve never been comfortable with this rigid view that ties religious practice with a social dogma that mistreats women or disrespects the environment. The film want to deconstruct this idea, because the patriarchy hurts the whole of society; it hurts men too, even if they don’t realize it.”
An elusive and allusive sci-fi odyssey across the Atlas Mountains, “Animalia” follows a line paved as much by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur and Andrei Tarkovsky as by the figurative traditions of modern art when depicting an otherworldly presence in purely ambient terms.
“I’m always disappointed when sci-fi films literalize everything,” says Alaoui. “It’s more interesting to not see the aliens, to let the audience project their own idea onscreen. Instead of envisioning my own little green men, I worked with this idea of a force that transforms everything around it.”
Alaoui explored similar terrain with her breakthrough film “So What If the Goats Die,” which won both the Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival as well as the César for best short. And as she built off that success for her feature debut – returning to the same setting to tell a different story – the Casablanca-based filmmaker looked to jettison another stale bit of dogma.
“People often approach Arab cinema through a certain prism,” she explains. “Often it has been easier to find European financing for films that follow a social realist, often stereotypical miserablism. Those kinds of films might appeal to Europeans, but are not really made for Moroccan or Arab audiences.”
“This has led to a certain backlash,” Alaoui continues. “People are rightly asking, for whom are these films made? So I think that working in different styles and playing with different genres can help us question our society through an accessible cinema that can interest our public.”
“We need to rethink our models,” she adds. “And what I can’t do in reality, I’ll do with my films. That’s the dream with this sort of work.”