Review: So What If the Goats Die (2020)

courtesy of NIFFF

What if an alien invasion is nothing we have imagined before? No coded messages from outer space, no death and destruction, no infiltration and body-snatching. What if it is just a blank slate, something happening far out there and triggering different human reactions, according to someone’s preferences, wishes, religious background and traditions?

In the case of So What If the Goats Die, the Moroccan-French filmmaker Sofia Alaoui asks the same questions in the desert setting in order to make a chamber piece about an extended family of Berber sheep- and goat herders. The blend of a science fiction / fantasy trope in its centre and arthouse development around it works quite well with the festival juries, since the film won the Shorts Jury Prize at Sundance, where it premiered, and repeated the success at the home turf of Champs-Élisées Film Festival, where it also won in the national competition. It was also shown at NIFFF, where we finally caught it.

Abdellah (Fouad Oughao) lives with his father (Moha Oughao) and their herd deep in the desert. When they run out of feed for the animals, Abdellah has to take a two-day-long trip on the back of his mule to the nearest village. First bad sign is that his colleague where he usually spends the night has left his house unattended, but nothing quite prepares him for the shock of finding the village almost completely empty. The only person left there is a local madman (Said Ouabi) whose recount of the events is not exactly reliable.

Once he sees the national TV report and some international news, Abdellah has to make a decision, based on his religious beliefs, traditions and loyalties, since the coming of the aliens represents different things to people around him and also for the authorities… Are they bringing the enlightenment, as the madman states? Will they bring the deliverance to women like Itto (Oumaima Oughao)? Is the invasion the work of the devil, as the imam on the TV preaches? Is the sheer notion of the civilization out there a work of the devil?

The questions will remain open for well over the film’s runtime of 23 minutes, as it is a good practice with the arthouse cinema. But, quiet, almost muted as it is, So What If the Goats Die speaks volumes to the audience, not about the possible life with the aliens, but about the life as it is, as we know and live. Its dim, natural-looking lighting suits the purpose, making Noé Bach’s largely hand-held camerawork shine in an evocative fashion in the Cinemascope aspect ratio, highlighting the vastness of the desert. Mostly meditative Héloise Pelloquet’s editing gets more dynamic in the crucial scene, employing even jump cuts, while the shift in music from melodies on the ethnic string instruments to pulsating piano follows the shift in the film’s tone closely. So What If the Goats Die is an extremely effective genre- and style blender and stands close to the masterpiece.

courtesy of Sofia Alaoui

Original title: Qu’importe si les bêtes meurent
Year: 2020
Runtime: 23′ 32”
Countries: France, Morocco
Languages: Berber, English
Directed by: Sofia Alaoui
Written by: Sofia Alaoui
Cast: Fouad Oughao, Moha Oughao, Oumaima Oughao, Said Ouabi
Cinematography by: Noé Bach
Editing by: Héloise Pelloquet
Music by: Amine Bouhafa
Sound by: Chauki Nani
Production design by: Souad Hraiche
Visual effects by: Thomas Vanz
Assistant directors: Tam Slimani, Ali Benchekroune
Produced by: Margaux Lorier, Sofia Alaoui
Production companies: Envie de Tempete Productions, Jiango Films
Supported by: Centre National de Cinema et de l’Image Animée, Centre Cinematographique Marocain