Atlantique took home the Grand Prix at Cannes, making her the first black woman to win a prize in the festival’s 72-year history
“I started to look at Dakar as a ghost city. Most of the boys I was talking to were so under the influence of wanting so badly to disappear from here and be in Spain that they were almost not here anymore”.
Actress turned director Mati Diop is explaining the reason that she opted to tell the story of the refugee crisis in the form of a lyrical supernatural horror in her film Atlantique, a surreal masterpiece set in Senegal that took home the Grand Prix prize at Cannes, making her the first black woman to be awarded a prize in the festival’s 72-year history.
Presented to her by Sylvester Stallone, she walked to the stage of the glitzy ceremony with the Rocky theme playing, asking her friends, producers and crew to join her, and dedicated the film to Dakar and Senegal. In her acceptance speech Diop stated, "It’s been quite an adventure. I’ve met with wonderful people, I’ve had such friendships and love and I think that’s the adventure of cinema. It’s marvellous and I’m very fortunate.”
For her debut feature, Diop returns to the subject matter of a short docu-fiction film she made in 2009, titled Atlantiques, which gave a voice to the lost men who set sail from Senegal on a treacherous ocean, searching for better prospects in Europe. According to the UN, nearly 2,300 people died trying to reach the shores of European countries last year and, at the time of filming the short, Diop says she was “very marked by that period”. She elaborates further:
“On the walls was written very often ‘Barcelona or Death’… it was really dark. The frequency of departures at sea was so big that there was a very viral feeling to it. I thought that it was terrible to imagine that your brother or boyfriend was in his room and suddenly he’s not there anymore. And once that you’ve got that he’s gone and it’s too late to act, then you start to panic.”
The men in the film are working as builders on a luxury hotel, and have not been paid for months. Out of desperation they set sail on a pirogue (small boat), searching for a better life, never to be seen again. Their crestfallen partners still visit their usual seaside bars in Dakar, but there’s no joy left in their socialising. Instead, they stare out to sea searching for answers. A strange fever strikes the residents of Dakar and the spirits of the men appear, calling out the injustice of corrupt capitalist practices, but in turn allowing the lost souls to share their last words with their lovers and families.
Working with cinematographer Claire Mathon and Senegalese-born composer Fatima Al Qadiri, the film carries an otherworldly tone. Diop repeatedly draws her characters and camera back to the ocean and its powerful pull, the combination of striking images of breaking waves and alien sounds acting as an oddly beautiful, but ghastly reminder of suffering and death.
Diop explains the reasons she chose Al Qadiri: “Her music is a very strange hybrid of ancient ancestral Muslim music meets electronica and hip-hop beats. For me as a multicultural person, I felt her music was really the sound of my time and generation. She was already making cinema scores without the intention of doing it. Her atmosphere and landscape was already very dark and dreamy – she was already into this science-fiction universe that I was looking for.”
“Her atmosphere and landscape was already very dark and dreamy – she was already into this science-fiction universe that I was looking for” – Mati Diop on Fatima Al Qadiri
The director says that she saw this as a chance to tell the Odyssey of Ulysses from the perspective of his wife Penelope. “I decided to tell the story of the disappeared boys through the point of view of women. I decided that the ghosts of the boys would come back because they have no grave, because they die in the ocean. The boys come back through the body of a woman so it’s like a way to talk about being haunted and obsessed by the absence of the boys that becomes totally omnipresent.”
The shape and form of the returned is also specific to the setting and culture of Senegal, with Diop using an Islamic spirit, the Djinn, as a supernatural presence capable of good and evil. “In Muslim culture the Djinns are very important, and I’m very attracted to their aesthetic and seduced by their story and the mise en scène in Western culture,” she says. “In Senegal, they’re supposed to appear invisibly during the sunset, and I’ve always been totally crazy about that imagery. I thought it was interesting that a Senegalese audience could understand these references.”
Diop lives in Paris, but her family hails from Senegal, something which she explored through learning more about her heritage. Her uncle, Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, made Touki Bouki in 1973, and she followed his film up with a short documentary companion piece A Thousand Suns in 2013. “When I realised how important my cinematic heritage was, and that I wanted to become a filmmaker, I made this dialogue with Touki Bouki,” she says. “I think his films are impressive and strong in terms of political equity and I myself was using a film to enter a territory, to explore Dakar, and also to connect with a part of myself… my Africanity that was not really expressing herself in Paris or in my very white French environment.”
“I myself was using a film to enter a territory, to explore Dakar, and also to connect with a part of myself… my Africanity that was not really expressing herself in Paris or in my very white French environment” – Mati Diop
Diop spent time researching for Atlantique by travelling to Senegal to explore the real-life experiences of the women who live there. “After I had a first draft, I went to Dakar to meet girls and I organised groups of discussion. We talked about marriage, we talked about sex, love, and religion and I discovered a lot of different visages (faces). All the different personalities the girls have in the film, and issues and contradictions they’re in, are really fed by all the meetings I had. A lot of girls are not afraid to admit that they profit from men, and that they use men to entertain themselves and I was really intrigued by that. There was no guilt. I thought it was very capitalist, feminist behaviour and it brought a lot of comedy into the film because it has a very cynical touch.”
Atlantique is a unique film about the refugee crisis that speaks directly to global political issues while also paying deep respect to the Wolof-speaking community by using culturally-specific visuals to display their heartbreak and anger. It depicts the reasons why people choose to leave their homeland, the courage it takes to set sail on a practically doomed voyage, and does it all with drama, total integrity and somehow, biting humour.