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TIFF 2022 

el khyari
Shadow of the Butterflies

This exquisite animation by Morocco’s Sofia El Khyari draws viewers into a mysterious forest where a young woman’s emotions, memories, and desires intermingle with the delicate movements of the butterflies that surround her.

Hi Sofia, Thank you for speaking with The New Current. How are you doing?

Hi, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be able to answer your questions and to be featured in The New Current.


You are a self-taught animator and a graduate of the prestigious Royal College of Art, with your films gaining multiple nominations and awards. When you started out, did you imagine you would get this type of recognition for your projects?

I don’t think I was expecting anything at the beginning. I come from a non-artistic background, and becoming a full-time artist and living from my art was already a challenge in itself.

Indeed, prior to joining the Royal College of Art, I pursued a Master's degree in Cultural Management. I was always drawing, of course, and I was studying fine art and experimenting with animation at night after my classes in management or internships. 

Acceptance to the Royal College of Art and the opportunity to work full-time on films was already a dream come true.And now I am so happy to be starting to get recognition for my films; it gives me strength to keep raising my own artistic voice as a filmmaker.


How much has your experience taking part in artist residencies helped to inform the films you want to make?

Making artists' residencies helped me a lot in developing my film. Those places are cocoons for artists; they provide time and space to create, alongside other artists, and away from money and financial considerations.


Congratulations on having Shadow of the Butterflies selected in the Short Cuts Programme at TIFF 2022. What has it meant to you to be able to share this film at such an essential film festival?

After spending many years developing and making this film with my amazing team, it is so heartwarming to see that it is making its way to the world through essential film festivals such as Locarno or TIFF.

It is a recognition of my work, of course, but also an opportunity to show it beyond the animation industry to a wider audience.

How important are film festivals in providing a platform and space for short filmmakers to showcase their short films?

They are important because they give recognition and visibility to the film. It is also the only possibility for the public to watch a short film on a big screen. As a filmmaker making hand-painted animated films with textures, it’s great to see them on a big screen.

Showcasing a film at a festival is also a good opportunity to exchange with the public, and this is priceless for the director.

Can you tell me a little bit about how Shadow of the Butterflies came about? What was the inspiration behind this film?

In the summer of 2018, I had just left London, the city where I studied animation. And when we leave a place, we also leave past love stories. I spent the weeks following my move immersing myself in the melancholy of my memories, daydreaming, and contemplating things in a detached way. That's when I think "Shadow of the Butterflies" was born. A movie often appears to me in mental images. I then imagined a leaf falling very slowly from its tree into a delicate aerial ballet before gently touching the ground. I visualized a butterfly twirling lightly around us, as if to evoke the dance of time. The plant, the butterfly... it's strange how the ephemeral seems eternal when you have a "saudosa" soul.

Because this film is about saudade. Saudade is a Portuguese word to express this feeling of bittersweet nostalgia. Saudade is the meeting point between the joy of the memory and the pain resulting from its absence.

For me, it is such a powerful feeling, something so fragile, full of sorrow, and at the same time so intense and beautiful, that I really wanted to express it fully in a film.

When directing a new film, do your own life and experiences ever play a role in your creative process?

When I animate, I usually try to immerse myself in personal memories, even if the story is not autobiographical, just to get the most sincere emotion for the film. I give the same advice to my animators. Also, listening to music helps bring a specific mood to the scene we animate (ex: listening to sad music while animating a sad character). Being an animator is a bit like being an actor; we have to dive deep into our personal experience to seek the right emotion.


What was the most challenging aspect of bringing Shadow of the Butterflies to the screen?

There were several challenging aspects.

First of all, the content of the film itself was challenging in expressing subtleties onscreen. The film aims to translate pure poetry and emotions onscreen.


Then the technique was challenging as well. The film is almost a long sequence shot, only interrupted by a few cuts. It was all hand painted, and skin textures were printed on most of the frames of the film.


With animation filmmaking, how flexible do you allow yourself to be with the story you are planning on telling once you are in production?

I pre-structured roughly the film during the animatic phase, but I also intuitively built the film during the animation process. If I can’t improvise at all during the production, I get easily bored, and sometimes last-minute changes are essential to a film.

After making Shadow of the Butterflies, what would you say has been the most interesting thing you have discovered about yourself and the films you want to make?

"Shadow of the Butterflies" is the first movie that I directed with a budget and a proper team. I always think that making a film is a journey. During this journey, I learnt a lot about how the industry works and how to look for sponsors. I improved and refined the style of the film, and I learned to handle the critics. I also traveled with my film thanks to the artist residencies, and got to meet wonderful artists. 

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

Filmmaking and animation, in particular, are, for me, the ultimate form of art. Because in a film, we can work on photography, graphic technique, image composition, rhythm, sound music, to create a unique and immersive piece.

"Its good to be free, intuitive, and playful during the creation process; otherwise, why would we do this as a living?"

How different was your approach to making Shadow of the Butterflies compared to how you directed your previous projects?

This is a film about bittersweet nostalgia, memories, and the time that has passed, so the timing and pace were very important.

This is why I drew with pencil and animated the whole film before painting it, to be sure that it was well paced and timed.


Are there any other aspects of filmmaking you're keen to explore with future films?

Yes, I have a lot of forms of filmmaking that i’d love to explore.

At the moment, though, I think I’d either like to do something very experimental and non-narrative, in the form of an installation, for instance.

Alternatively, a rough dreamy extract for a feature length or longer format.


What has been the best piece of advice you have been given?

My first animation teacher told me once : "The child who plays with the sand manages to make a castle, the one who plans the castle does not play anymore and is sad."

It’s good to be free, intuitive, and playful during the creation process; otherwise, why would we do this as a living?


Do you have any tips or advice you would offer someone wanting to get into filmmaking?

Not being afraid to dream big; creating a film, any film that comes from the heart.We learn more when we take risks and do things.


And finally, what message do you hope your audience will take away from Shadow of the Butterflies?

I want the spectators to feel the movie rather than understand it.

I want them to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the images and to feel this mixture of sadness and beauty.

I want them to become immersed in this sensitive world and to experience even the lightest of touches, the slightest moment of sensuality, the most negligible sense of pain.

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