Meeting with the Franco-Moroccan filmmaker for her intriguing and bewitching first feature in which Morocco suddenly finds itself at the heart of mysterious supernatural events
What gave you the taste for cinema?
Sofia Alaoui: It all starts in China, where I grew up between the ages of 5 and 11. During all this period, I had the chance to travel a lot all over the continent with my parents and to discover, in addition to China, Cambodia, Mongolia… Either other ways of living but also a lot of legends, mythologies . It definitely stimulates the imagination. And the solitary child that I was, therefore, started very early to take a camera to appropriate these sets and then to shoot films on weekends with friends. In fact, I think I wanted to make films before I even knew exactly what was hidden behind the word director. I just wanted to make movies. For a while, I thought of studying cinema in China because the Beijing Film Academy interested me a lot. But as in the meantime, we had returned to live in Morocco, I opted for closer France (where she will go on to ESEC, EICAR, the Gobelins-Ecole de l’Image, the FEMIS scriptwriting workshop… ) and in parallel, I started to make my first short films, two fiction and two documentaries because I immediately liked to confront myself with the two exercises. Then I returned to live in Morocco where I set up my production box with which I was able to give birth to What if the beasts die
Awarded a Grand Prix at Sundance and then a César for short film, It doesn’t matter if the beasts die depicted a young shepherd and his father confronted in the Atlas Mountains with supernatural phenomena. And already the strange, the genre at the heart of your first feature, Animaliaare here…
I’ve always been fascinated by the invisible, the supernatural in my personal life and the questions I asked myself are in this film. As a spectator and as a director, I like to be transported to worlds that make me travel. And to films that are said to be on the subject, I always prefer – and even more so behind the camera – those where the cinema experience allows me to question society. But I didn’t think I could go there for a first feature film. To talk about Morocco, I was rather encouraged to make a realistic social drama. I started to write elsewhere but without managing to go to the end. To talk about social classes, feminism, patriarchy and religion, I needed to go through the prism of gender. And the success of It doesn’t matter if the beasts die reinforced my idea that I could make the type of film I wanted to make. On this film, I met the producers who really supported me and who today still support me at all times and it is here thatAnimalia could hatch.
What interests you more particularly in the theme of religion that you evoke and that you approach in Animalia through the prism of mysticism?
When I came back to live in Morocco, I was confronted with this dogmatic society where in the end people often practice out of fear or the desire to be rewarded with points for gaining access to paradise. But where is the mysticism in this kind of practical side? It feels like God is a dad who is going to punish you or reward you. Being Moroccan, I actually have a Muslim identity since it is about the state relationship. But I have never supported respecting things because you have to respect them. I need to understand. To question. To dig into the subject.
You wrote Animalia alone ?
Yes but with consultants and writing. I wanted to offer a trip, to offer the most space and weight to the image. Do not over-explain things, deliberately leave some blurring so that the viewer can grasp it. As in the films of directors that I like where everything is not given: Tarkovski, Bunotuel, Bergman, Lanthimos, Lars von Trier’s very organic and melancholic cinema at the same time… The choice of frames counts here more than the words, with obviously a balance to be found between realistic and fantastic situations, right down to the editing. That’s why I always write in a very visual way. It allows me to be able to communicate in the most precise way possible the abstract ideas that I have in mind to my team – which was the same as on the court – and to make myself understood.
Your heroine, this young woman of modest origin married to the son of a wealthy family and plunged, alone, into the heart of increasingly disturbing supernatural events, is brilliantly played by Oumaïma Barid. How did you find this rare pearl?
I don’t do actual testing. When I meet actors in audition, I never ask them to perform scenes but I ask them questions. I need to know who they really are to know if I’m going to want to spend all that time preparing and filming with them. And this knowing that, once these have been chosen, I will also tell my story, give a lot of myself. It is a relationship of trust. At first glance, Oumaïma can appear very fragile. But from our first exchanges, I understood the strength she had within her and which perfectly matched what I was looking for for her character. She comes from a very conservative family but always knew she wanted to be an actress. And therefore decided on her own to leave Agadir to come to Casablanca. She has a will of steel that she shares with her character for which I wanted to play on the stereotypes of the rebellious woman. Rebellion does not only mean yelling, speaking louder than others. It can also go through silence.
How did you work with her?
I revealed myself a lot. I told him about who I am, my relationship to life, to my family. I explained to him in detail why I wanted to make this film, what I wanted to defend through him. Because she was really going to embody a character that I wrote for myself. From there, I did not need to repeat, I trusted him completely. Ditto on the set: I don’t like set-ups, even if my cinematographer (Noé Bach, whose work we were able to admire in Love me, Anais’ Loves…) sometimes hates me! (laughs) Because there’s always something magical about the first takes and I want the camera to capture that. And then it creates an attentive listening to everyone on the set in order to achieve what I’m looking for: to be as close as possible to reality.
You already have an idea of the after- Animalia ?
Yes I I’m already working on my second feature film which will be produced by the same producers and shot again in Morocco. The action will take place in a hospital in a city threatened by regular sandstorms. It will be an ecological and apocalyptic drama
Animalia. By Sofia Alaoui. With Oumaïma Barid, Mehdi Dehbi, Fouad Oughaou… Duration: 1h30. Released August 9, 2023