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SUNDANCE 2023 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Sofia Alaoui • Director of Animalia

“We have stuck Arab cinema in a pigeon-hole: I want to fight against these stereotypes”

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- We spoke to the Moroccan-French filmmaker about her fantastical feature debut, set in Morocco and raising important questions about faith

Sofia Alaoui  • Director of Animalia

Sofia Alaoui is presenting her first feature, Animalia [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Sofia Alaoui
film profile
]
, at the Sundance Film Festival, in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. The movie tells the story of a mysterious young woman who embarks on both a physical and a spiritual journey. We talked to the director about her inspiration, faith and the nature of Moroccan cinema.

Cineuropa: How did you develop the story? Was there something special that inspired you to tell it?
Sofia Alaoui:
I was born in Morocco and grew up there. Then, I left to live in China and France. A few years ago, I came back to Morocco and had a new outlook on my society. I was surprised by the changes it had been through. I was confronted by a society in which religion and, particularly, dogma had gained enormous traction. It was really frustrating for me; I wondered why we needed to be so respectful of that dogma, which we do not even understand. I wanted to develop a story that would express this feeling. At the same time, I kept travelling around the world a lot, and during a trip to Greenland, I found inspiration in the Northern Lights. It all started with those landscapes, in which I wanted to anchor a story that would talk about the experience of something supernatural. I needed the “alien” element as a means to disrupt the dynamics of my society and, therefore, to be able to question it.

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You don't tell us very much about the background of your main protagonist, Itto. Why did you make that choice?
We know a few things about her, such as the fact that she speaks Berber, for example. This is the language of the native people of Morocco, the ones who were there before the Arabs came. Since she speaks Berber, it is clear that she is not part of the bourgeoisie. She doesn't fit in with that family, to whom money is like a second god. This is not her place, considering the social structure of Morocco. The most important thing for me was to reflect the dynamics of the social classes: that’s why I use all three languages, Berber, Arabic and French. Besides that, I wanted Itto to be a mysterious girl, and therefore, I wanted to tell audiences as little as possible about her. At first, she doesn't fit in and is unsure about her status, but finally, she finds a way to accept who she is and finds a connection with herself.

The main topic of the film is faith. Does it not matter if you believe in a god or in aliens?
I guess not. What’s important is to question the dogma.

Dogs play an important role in the story. What is your relationship with them?
I was searching for a way to represent this alien presence. In many myths – and I experienced this a lot while living in China and travelling in Asia – the soul of one being can live inside that of another. I try to be respectful towards everything around us. Dogs and birds are important to the story. There is something living inside of them. They stand in contrast to humans, whose emotions and behaviour are clearly calculated.

There are not many well-known fantasy-dramas made in Morocco.
It was very difficult to convince people to make a film with fantastical elements. I really fought for it. Even for my short film, it was really hard, since there is a specific idea of Moroccan movies that dominates everything. They have to be more realistic. We have stuck Arab cinema in a pigeon-hole: I want to fight against these stereotypes. I think cinema is mainly interesting because of its diversity of languages.

Are there any works of literature or any films that inspired you when coming up with the visual concept?
My relationship with cinema flourished with my travels and encounters. I mostly draw inspiration from my life experiences, not a great deal from movies. But I watch a lot of documentaries, and I like real settings. In the film, there are real settings, such as the garage or the bar. I have been influenced by movies that take a documentary approach and use non-professional actors. I like Brazilian cinema as well as Asian cinema. Moreover, because of their atmosphere, showing the end of the world, I would particularly cite Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris as well as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Lars von Trier
film profile
]
.

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