When French-Moroccan filmmaker Sofia Alaoui lived in Paris, it was a difficult time in her nascent career. “I was put in a box — Arab filmmaker, Arab girl — for so long,” she tells The National over Zoom, ahead of the Sundance Film Festival premiere of her debut feature film, Animalia, on Friday.
“I think because of the colonial relations between France and Morocco, they put people in a box and they’re waiting for Arab cinema to be realistic, documentary-like.” Certainly, films like the rap-infused Casablanca Beats, which played at Cannes Film Festival in 2021, fall into this category. Alaoui, though, had other ambitions.
Since moving back to Morocco in 2017, she’s been able to finally climb out of that box, through the launch of Animalia. Telling the story of Itto (Oumaima Barid), a young, pregnant woman who becomes separated from her husband and her wealthy in-laws after a supernatural event descends over Morocco, it’s a beguiling and unique mix of social commentary and genre filmmaking.
She admits feeling “relief” when she heard the film was selected as part of Sundance's World Cinema Dramatic category. “You know that the film will premiere in a place where it’s safe,” she says.
Rather like Itto, she’s pregnant, and won’t be travelling to Utah. She’ll have to let Barid take all the applause — although this is most likely to be just the start of a year-long journey on the festival circuit for Animalia.
Alaoui, 33, is already well-acquainted with Sundance. In 2020, her supernatural-tinged short So What if the Goats Die won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Set in the Atlas Mountains, this fantasy-driven piece about a young shepherd who discovers a mysterious event has wrecked a nearby town was a game-changer. “It proved we can make those kinds of films in Morocco,” says Alaoui, who expanded on the short’s concept for her debut feature.
In Animalia, as Itto tries to find her way back to her family, things get increasingly stranger. Dogs seem transfixed, possessed even, as they gather in a circle, while eerie bioluminescent green lights appear through the brooding cloud formations.
Cliche aliens are nowhere to be seen. “That was really important, not to create ‘little green men’,” says Alaoui, who employed Arnaud Fouquet, the French visual effects supervisor who worked on Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, to create the film’s unnerving atmosphere.
As those around her panic, Itto undergoes a spiritual awakening — something akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alaoui drew from her own relationship with her faith and “my own questions about my relation to my country, which is a really dogmatic country".
She says her French mother is Christian while her Moroccan father is Muslim. "I grew up in a country where there is Taoism and Buddhism," she adds. "So, yeah, I don’t know if it’s a spiritual movie, but it’s my own way [of addressing it].”
While it’s obviously a coincidence that she is pregnant like her protagonist, it begs the question of how much the character is based on her. “It wasn’t conscious, but there’s me in the main character of course,” she says. “I live in Morocco, which is a country that can be very complicated in many ways.
"Like Itto … she’s stuck in this patriarchal society. Maybe when you love something … and I love my country, I love Morocco, but I want Morocco to be shaken by an alien presence so it can be a better country.”
Undeniably, it’s rare to see an Arab-language film tell its story using sci-fi genre tropes, which for Alaoui, is a powerful way to explore real-world themes. She cites Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean Oscar-winner Parasite as a “great example” of this, in that it uses the thriller format to tackle inequality.
“He talks about society but in a different way.” She adds that Moroccan and Arab people “maybe want something a bit different” from their cinema, rather than simply wallowing in depictions of poverty and misery. She sounds defiant. “I made a film I want to watch, that can question my society."
Although she’s planning another home-grown film, she has her eye on an international career. “I don’t want to be stuck as a female Moroccan film director, that stereotype.” Now she’s out of the box, she wants to stay there.
Animalia has its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday