‘Animalia’: A MENA Look at Apocalypse

How science fiction works as social criticism in a new film by the French-Moroccan director Sofia Alaoui

‘Animalia’: A MENA Look at Apocalypse
A still image from the film “Animalia.” (Totem Films)

Sofia Alaoui’s feature-length debut film, “Animalia,” is about apocalypse. The French-Moroccan director says as much in her commentary for the Sundance Film Festival. In her words, “‘Animalia’ is … a drama about the end of the world.” In modern usage, the word “apocalypse” goes hand in hand with notions of cataclysm, of a final ending to the world and its hegemons. In its original form, however, the Greek “apokalupsis” means “revelation” or “uncovering,” which is why the title of the last book of the Bible is usually translated into English as the Book of Revelation. So the word “apocalypse” asks us to consider what might lie “beyond.” For Alaoui, apocalypse is more than just eschatology; it is revelation, and with it comes the beginning of something new.

As a scientist, I owe much of my career itself to the genre of science fiction, which envisions the future in the light of science and technology. These considerations have informed many of my own visions of the future and my own work. How then, does “Animalia” extend this dialogue between technology and society to envision a new future?

“Animalia” follows the story of Itto (portrayed by the actress Oumaima Barid), a pregnant woman left to fend for herself as extraterrestrial beings descend upon Morocco while her family is away on business. Alone and frightened, she must find her way back to her husband, Amine (Mehdi Dehbi), amid the chaos. To do so, she enlists the help of Fouad (Fouad Oughaou), a driver. All the while, she must navigate the complexities of both her rural background and her marriage into a newly rich family. In its 91-minute runtime, “Animalia” explores themes of class, faith, human relations with nature and animals, and how these notions assert themselves when aliens threaten to turn everything on its face.

Alaoui finds herself at home with these themes, as extensions of her previous body of work. In her 2019 short film, “So What If the Goats Die,” Alaoui follows two Amazigh farmers in the Moroccan countryside who need to find food for a dying goat amid the disaster following an alien invasion. We meet a father (Moha Oughaou) and an imam who dismiss the aliens because of their dogmatism and urge those around them to seek refuge in God. We meet another Itto (Oumaima Oughaou), who, as a consequence of her faith in God, seeks out the aliens on her own. This Itto, also pregnant, shares much with the Itto of “Animalia,” and not just a name. Already, in this short, we find premonitions of “Animalia.” In her debut, without the bounds of a time constraint, Alaoui finds room to flesh out these thematic concerns.

Looking beyond Alaoui’s filmography, I find it interesting to ask where “Animalia” stands in relation to other films of its genre. In Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) cinema, “Animalia” represents the latest in the region’s vision of science fiction. MENA science fiction, as a literary genre, began to emerge only in the 1980s and, for the most part, it has limited itself to short stories and novels. However, as modern writers and directors of MENA films — Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Suleiman and Nadine Labaki, to name a few — have brought international attention to a region underrepresented in cinema, MENA science-fiction film has begun to grow.

This is not to say the genre has not had its fair share of critics. In a 2000 essay, “The Emergence of Science Fiction in Arabic Literature,” Reuven Snir wrote, “Arabic SF in general has as yet not generated any serious inquiry into the nature of contemporary social reality.” In his 2018 book “Arabic Science Fiction,” the first comprehensive survey of the genre in English, Ian Campbell examines this claim and finds it lacking. The genre, shaped by political censorship in the MENA region, often veils its sociocultural criticisms out of a need for caution. By looking at historical examples of fiction in the field, one finds that the genre has generated significant criticism of the sociopolitical realities it finds itself in — but one must read between the lines to unearth these meanings.

Regarding the gendered aspect of the genre, Snir is irreproachable, however. He writes, “As far as I know, we cannot find even one Arab woman devoted to the writing of SF.” At the time he was writing, few examples could be found, it is true. In recent years, however, this trend has reversed, as an increasing number of women both in the MENA region and in the diaspora have contributed to the genre. In film, the reversal has become even more pronounced. Alaoui finds herself in good company with directors Larissa Sansour, Basma Alsharif and Mounia Akl, whose MENA science-fiction films have opened to critical acclaim at international film festivals. Even outside science fiction, Moroccan cinema has garnered attention with the release of Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan,” which took home the International Critics’ Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

To contextualize “Animalia,” then, is to ask how the genre and its conventions bear on the film. This becomes especially important in light of Alaoui’s work as a filmmaker in the diaspora. How do disparate visions of science fiction in the West and in MENA shape the contours of this film? Given the film genre’s long history in the West (stretching back to the 1950s), its semantic dimensions have cemented themselves firmly. Though these conventions shift in response to new technologies, much of the evolution of the genre owes itself to social and cultural discourses. For MENA science fiction, these conventions are much more in flux.

If it’s possible to pin down two aspects of MENA science fiction in light of this flexibility, we might discuss the two that bear on the unique status of “Animalia” as a film situated both in Morocco and in the diaspora. Campbell describes two key components of the genre. First is “tanabbu” (prediction or divination). In prediction or divination, MENA science fiction resolves conflict generated as a consequence of science and technology. However, this dimension of the genre is often constrained by “tarqi” (patching). Authors in the genre will often resolve their stories in such a way that society “remains insulated from the dangers posed by the technological or moral threat.” Tarqi emerges from a pragmatic concern to avoid too much subversion, at least superficially.

Of tanabbu there is plenty to discuss, though this is no surprise — both Western and MENA science fiction often rely on predictions of the future to extrapolate criticisms of the present. “Animalia” anticipates this criticism, when one of the hitchhikers who Itto rides with compares the alien contact to the attempted coup d’etat of 1972. Immediately, the film draws a parallel between its principal conflict and previous political instabilities. This parallel provides possibilities for resemblance and difference.

In the most arresting scene of the film, Itto, Fouad and a shepherd (Hsain Bellahcen) ride through the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. They stop in front of an enormous storm cloud, which stretches from the heavens to the Earth and pulsates with green lightning. In a nod to “Stalker” (a 1979 Soviet science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky), Fouad drives them through the foggy graveyard of a military camp in order to stand at the center of the storm. Kneeling as if to pray, Itto has a vision of a flock of sheep. One sheep approaches her and, as she hugs it, she sobs. In a dazzling computer-generated imagery (CGI) sequence, as one of her tears falls, it morphs into a brilliant phantasm that coalesces to form a nebula. Itto wakes up and, a few scenes later, she confides in Fouad about what she saw: “I saw a flock of sheep. I felt like it was my family. And the head sheep was my mother. … It was hard to see them go, leaving me alone in this world of humans.”

The key to understanding this sequence at the heart and chronological center of “Animalia” is its title, which is part of the Latin phrase for animal kingdom. Interestingly, the film’s title card carries the original French title, “Parmi Nous” (“Among Us”). One can imagine at least one reason this title does not work in English but, posed alongside the English title, it enlightens it. The function of tanabbu in “Animalia,” then, is to envision a future where people fully realize their interconnectedness with everything: both nature and animal.

From the start, “Animalia” dwells on the beings that live around and among us to ask how our relations with them and how ecology can help us to understand human-human relations. Again and again, characters find themselves face-to-face with animals, sometimes beneath their notice. In one scene, Itto, alone in a strange town, sits by an abandoned building, as the camera zooms in on ants that are crawling on the doorframe she is leaning against.

Sometimes, the animals and creatures with which we coexist may not be so neutral a presence. During the climax of the film, as Itto and her family pray at a mosque, ants return to climb up the hijab of her mother-in-law (Souad Khouyi), much to her frustration. As she bats at them, birds fly into the men’s section of the mosque and pull at the men’s clothing. If the characters of “Animalia” do not acknowledge the beings they live with, the animals will forcibly contend with them.

In the Abrahamic religions, it is clear where humans stand in relation to nature. Humans hold an esteemed position over creation. In Islam, humans are God’s viceregent on earth, while, in Christianity and Judaism, Adam is created in the image of God. To pray to God and to draw near to the divine, then, serves as a reminder of the special position humans occupy, further separating humans from animals. The tumultuous climax of “Animalia” disrupts this process, as animals distract humans from their prayer.

Although it seems blasphemous at first, this message is perhaps not so radical from a religious perspective: Both the Quran and the Bible speak of Earth metaphorically and its ability to cry out to God and the humans that tend it. Particularly salient in my mind is Romans 8:22: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” The thematic connection between Itto as a pregnant woman and humans as caretakers of our world, then, should not be lost on us. During the disorienting climax, Itto’s water breaks and she enters into labor; this serves only to underscore this thematic similarity further. The MENA region, full of natural wonders, is among the areas in the world most vulnerable to climate change. In light of global conversations about Earth’s future, how different would the response be if we saw nature as our child?

The film’s occupation with the animal kingdom dovetails with its analysis of class distinctions, between French-speaking and Amazigh-speaking Moroccans, and between rich and poor. In her monologue to Fouad, Itto says repeatedly, “My parents were simple people, exploited for being honest. I was ashamed of them.” We see this play out in the film, as Itto hides her Amazigh background. She speaks only Amazigh to Fouad when he is her last resort for help. The return of Itto’s mother as a sheep forces her to reckon with her upbringing, which has been buried as a topic in light of her marriage into a nouveau riche family.

Within this tenuous status, Itto finds herself alienated from both her background and her family. Through her visions, Itto realizes these class distinctions betray the unity of humankind. Time and again throughout the film, we see how working-class people are treated with disdain and as means rather than ends, in analogy to our relation to the natural world. “Animalia,” then, isn’t just about animals, but our relation to the whole sphere of creation: human and non-human. In its final sequence, “Animalia” follows Itto during and after labor. As she and her child walk into and merge with the stars, she offers the film’s thesis in an extended monologue, meditating on the oneness of all: “We feared and respected a higher being, our only salvation. A being that we called God. … And if I am to tell you the truth about things … what isn’t connected has no existence on earth or elsewhere. And that’s why all these things, which are part of the one, are precious.”

“Animalia” does not demand an agnostic, atheist or reductive perspective; instead, it ultimately portrays an expansive view, of returning to oneness — which echoes strands of Neoplatonism.

To circle back, then, to the discussion of the conventions of MENA’s science fiction: While “Animalia” fulfills the convention of tanabbu, it ultimately lacks tarqi. One cannot “patch up” the implications of the radical change imposed by the alien contact. Offered a new vision of her relation to the world, Itto enters into a new future of her own shaping — there is no going back. The comparisons to “Stalker” are inescapable. As both films deal with the consequences of the supernatural and extraterrestrial, they close in on images of children, ultimately shifting the dimensions of their discourse to the future.

If there is one critique to levy at “Animalia,” it is perhaps its didacticism. With Itto’s monologues, Alaoui lays out the entire logic of the film for the audience to hear and see, which precludes multiple readings. Regardless, Alaoui fluently manipulates the conventions of the science-fiction genre (as understood in the West and in MENA) to create something both particular to its sociopolitical context and also universal to religious understandings of the human position in the universe. In Alaoui’s apocalypse, we regard tomorrow as we regard a child: the end of our existence but the beginning and continuation of something in which we have played a hand — a new unity that beckons all of us toward a vision of possibility.

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