PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 20: (L-R) Manon Gindre, Oumaima Barid, A cardboard cutout of Sofia Alaoui, Margaux Lorier and Toufik Ayadi attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Animalia” Premiere at Library Center Theatre on January 20, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
By Katie Small
Supernatural drama Animalia is a cinematically stunning blend of realism and sci-fi that questions the certainty of faith. The film is the debut feature for writer-director Sofia Alaoui, who returns to the Sundance Film Festival after premiering her short film So What If the Goats Die, which took home the Grand Jury Prize in 2020.
The French-Moroccan film follows the journey of Itto (Oumaïma Barid), who is pregnant with her first child and struggling to adapt to her new marriage, her affluent in-laws, and her newly elevated social standing. A sudden thunderstorm followed by a mysterious government lockdown throws Itto’s world into chaos; she is separated from her husband and struggles to reunite with him while navigating the bizarre events unfolding around her.
As she treks through Morocco’s striking mountain ranges and across the high desert, Itto encounters a supernatural presence and strange behavior from animals; she turns to prayer for solace, but her Muslim faith is increasingly tested. Subtle and expansive, Animalia’s French title is Parmi Nous, which means ‘Among Us’ – a reference to the mysterious extraterrestrial life forms that propel the film’s plot.
As pregnant as her protagonist, the film’s director could not be present for the premiere but introduced audiences to Animalia with a pre-recorded video. Alaoui says that Animalia represents “a human odyssey, an ode to nature, to the creation of the place of the human in a complex world.”
She also explains that the story was inspired by her experience of returning to Morocco after living abroad for many years. “I was confronted with the weight of the religion and dogma of the society, as well as the crazy relations people have with money, our second god in this modern society,” she says. “But at the same time I was completely obsessed with aliens and the universe and all those big questions.”
Alaoui’s cast consisted mainly of local non-actors, and she says that representing the real Morocco was important to her. In the post-premiere Q&A, producer Margaux Lorier answered questions on Alaoui’s behalf and emphasized the desire to authentically represent Morocco. “It was our goal to speak for and to the Moroccan people. We don’t see the real Morrocco that often. We see the Western version, made for Western audiences – camels and the desert – but that is not the real Morocco,” Lorier explains. “We hope that North Africans enjoy being represented on screen in this way.”
Also present for the discussion, lead actor Oumaïma Barid spoke enthusiastically of her experience acting alongside Moroccan farmers and villagers. Barid delivers a powerful performance as Itto; her compelling eyes transcend spoken language, contributing to the hypnotic atmosphere and imaginative world-building that is at the heart of Animalia’s ontology.