Taken from the winter 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
About halfway through Mati Diop’s Dakar-set Atlantics, one of the year’s most chilling cinematic sights unfolds as if from your own bedroom window in the dead of night. Bathed in the neon glimmer of streetlights and a thick haze of dust, a group of young women feverishly speed-walk across the city streets. They’re in their nightclothes, baggy t-shirts and silk slips; all are barefoot, as if summoned by some external, magnetising force. Their eyes glow scorched-white in the dark. And this army of restless women is headed for the sea.
Women possessed – by true love, by societal obligations, or by supernatural forces – are central to the French-Senegalese director’s debut feature, a shape-shifting drama hinging on the secret relationship between construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and the girl that he loves, Ada (Mama Sané), who is promised to another man in an arranged marriage. When he unsuccessfully appeals for many months of unpaid wages at the building site of a foreboding luxury tower, Souleiman and his co-workers attempt the perilous 2,000-mile trip across the Atlantic from Senegal to Spain. But Atlantics begins where every other hapless migrant tale ends: as the women left behind by their boyfriends begin to experience strange supernatural fevers, and as the men return as vengeful spirits, seeking retribution for their workplace injustice.
The choice to weave in fantasy elements came to Diop as she was shooting her like-minded and similarly titled short film Atlantiques in 2009, about a young man recounting his sea crossing around a fire. “The night I filmed Serigne (Seck, the film’s lead), he told me, ‘When you decide to leave, it’s because you’re already dead,’” says Diop. “Indeed, the boys I interviewed no longer seemed to be there. Their spirits and dreams were elsewhere. I could feel a ghostly atmosphere in Dakar and it became impossible for me to contemplate the ocean without feeling its fatal power of attraction.”
Even before it took home the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes film festival and was selected as Senegal’s entry for best international feature film at the 92nd Academy Awards, Diop’s visionary political fable had already broken ground simply by virtue of existing: Atlantics is the first film directed by a black woman to screen in competition at Cannes (more on that later). It’s the story of an ocean haunted by terrible, interlinked histories, from the slave trade to colonisation and the recent migratory crisis. It’s the story of the thousands of men who attempted to cross the Atlantic in wooden pirogues during the early/mid-00s, before the Spanish civil guard’s maritime patrols redirected migratory routes overland. (The journey gave rise to a grim expression, Barca wala Barsakh (‘Barcelona or Death’), in the Senegalese language of Wolof.) Finally, it’s the story of a deeply intuitive filmmaker inspired by the 2012 citizen awakening to oust Senegal’s then-president, who decided to put her cinema at the service of this movement.
“What I saw in Dakar in the early 2000s scared me,” says Diop. “Through the discussions I had, young people seemed to think that Senegal was a place where it was impossible to exist. As if the after-effects of colonialism had convinced them that they had to go through Europe to gain a sense of self-worth or add value to their lives. That’s what I found most troubling.” Full of hope for the country’s future, Diop decided to further delve into her family’s roots and contribute to a renaissance in Senegalese cinema, which has suffered from dwindling attendance, too few movie theatres and slashed financial support after a vibrant period from the country’s independence in 1960 until the early 1980s.
The 37-year-old director’s first order of business was to conjure up the protagonist of Ada, which would also give her the chance to vicariously live out the African adolescence she had missed out on. Raised in Paris by her dad, respected Senegalese musician Wasis Diop, and an artistically inclined French mum, she often visited relatives in Dakar and was fascinated by its chaotic urban bustle, striking nocturnal lights and rich sonic tapestry. She also became clued in to the city’s silver-screen lineage via the films of her uncle, the late Djibril Diop Mambéty. His 1973 feature Touki Bouki is revered by the likes of Martin Scorsese, who restored it as part of his World Cinema Project. (Beyoncé and Jay-Z even paid homage to the film’s poster for their On the Run II world tour promo campaign.)
“There used to be a lot of young men who’d head out to another continent to help their parents. Today, youths are waking up and recognising that we can build a life for ourselves without taking off for the west. We can do it at home” – Ibrahima Traoré
Beyond her family’s artistic achievements, Diop tapped into her own experiences as a film actress – most memorably, as an anthropology student in French auteur Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum – as she set out to cast a fresh crop of non-professional talents. “Becoming a character is a wildly fascinating experience when you think about it,” Diop considers, adding that she echoes Denis’ desire to cultivate deep bonds with her cast. “It’s thrilling to wonder what fictional characters are made of. Once you become one, you understand it has a lot to do with the person who wrote it, but also with yourself. It’s a strange circulation between the author’s imagination and the unfathomable mystery of your own existence that gives rise to this fictional entity. It’s quite magical.”
Diop and her casting director embarked on a mammoth offensive in Dakar, aimed at finding actors in the same social environments as the characters they portray. She found Souleiman on a construction site; the character of Dior, an emancipated female bar manager, working in a nightclub; and her heroine, Ada, while walking the teeming streets of Thiaroye, a suburb of Dakar. “Before choosing an actor, I think you have to recognise them, meaning the character you have written,” Diop reflects. “We often say that someone you fall in love with is someone you recognise – you feel as though you’ve known them your whole life. For me, the same thing applies to actors. Of course, technique and a proper toolkit to embody a character are also worth examining. But before all that, I have to recognise them.”
Huddled around their producer’s phone in a New York hotel room, Diop’s accomplished young cast speak in French and Wolof of the palpable parallels they felt with their onscreen counterparts. “When Mati offered me the part of a character who was also working in construction, I was psyched, because the story spoke about my reality and my entourage,” recalls Traoré, AKA Souleiman. As for Sané, the youngest of six siblings and a tailor’s apprentice until her chance encounter with Diop, she reveals how psychically aligned she felt with her character during a scene where Ada’s friends advise her not to go through with her marriage if she’s not feeling the love. “When Dior says all of this to Ada, it felt as though she was talking to me. I felt concerned,” she explains. For his part, Amadou Mbow, who plays a young policeman sent to investigate a mysterious fire that burns through Ada’s nuptial bed on her wedding night, never aspired to appear on the big screen – or any other size of screen. “I’m a huge film buff, but I never planned for something like this to happen,” he says. “And it has honestly been one of the greatest moments in my life.”
Atlantics’ lo-fi approach to rendering visible the vast realm of spirits enmeshed in Senegalese culture stays with the viewer long after the end credits roll. Tapping into the country’s enchanted religious imagination, the film’s star-crossed lovers are reunited through a very local sense of spectral justice. In a country where over 95 per cent of the population identifies as Muslim, otherworldly forces are at play everywhere, from protectors to jealous lover spirits blamed for a slew of misfortunes, illnesses and hallucinations. Jinn are invisible beings mentioned in the Qur’an that take on many forms, possess remarkable powers and occupy a person’s body and mind, according to various local folk beliefs.
“Within the world of jinn, there are also what you call faru rab – male lover spirits that take possession of women’s bodies at night,” says Diop. “They make love to them but they are invisible. When a woman seemingly fails at her marriage or in the household, we’ll suspect her to have a faru rab – to be possessed by a romantic jinn that prevents her from entirely giving herself over to her husband.”
Without giving too much away, suffice to say the boys do return from their voyage in some capacity to ensure justice is carried out and loose ends are tied up. Atlantics’ mix of devout and secular characters reflect a range of societal attitudes toward jinn, from parents who try to drive them away with a marabout (holy man) to Ada’s friend Dior, who isn’t – initially, at least – buying into this hocus-pocus business. The cast is also split on the subject, with Sané and Traoré warning that jinn accusations aren’t to be taken lightly, while Mbow sits at the more ‘scientific’ end of the spectrum. “In Senegalese culture, most families forbid their children from lingering in the streets around sunset, to avoid being possessed by the jinn,” he points out. “They say jinn also head home at that hour and can blend into the crowd. If they cross paths with someone who isn’t spiritually strong, they can put that person in a trance and possess them. That’s why most Senegalese don’t leave their homes at that hour.”
“There has been such a dearth of black characters and black filmmakers that, when an opportunity presents itself, we must accept (the idea of) becoming strong symbols and reassuring a certain white audience that props us up” – Mati Diop
The extra-sensory world of spirits – that which is ineffable, unfathomable or impossible to convey through dialogue and visuals – is arguably most eloquently revealed via composer Fatima Al Qadiri’s haunting, melancholy score. The Dakar-born, Kuwait-raised electronic artist, who’s been fascinated with jinn since childhood, previously broached the topic on her 2011 track “Shaytan” (meaning ‘Satan’), wherein she repeats a mantra to dispel evil. “Jinn can be good or bad spirits,” Al Qadiri explains. “Mostly, however, they’re portrayed in pop culture as evil entities seeking dark revenge or their own destructive entertainment. When you speak about them, it’s almost always assumed that’s the vibe. What’s great about Mati’s portrayal is that she doesn’t follow that playbook and presents something quite different.”
At Cannes this year, praise for Diop and her film was beyond effusive. And yet the tsunami of press coverage almost single-handedly focused on the filmmaker’s black, female identity. This is something Diop had anticipated, given the gaping cultural chasm that still needs to be filled where representation is concerned. “There has been such a dearth of black characters and black filmmakers that, when an opportunity presents itself, we must accept (the idea of) becoming strong symbols and reassuring a certain white audience that props us up,” she says. “But we also really have to distance ourselves from that and remember that it doesn’t have to do with us. All of a sudden, I take up an enormous amount of space because there are too few people who look like me. It has more to do with a systemic dysfunction than my film per se.”
Al Qadiri, whose multifaceted synth-based sounds challenge western perceptions of other cultures, senses a growing unrest among movie audiences. “I feel like the world is changing, to be honest,” she says. “There’s a renewed desire to be confronted with imagery and stories from non-saturated perspectives – (with) films like Atlantics. And, I mean, what could be more relatable or universal than a story about construction workers and their girlfriends? Of course, whether they get picked up or not has to do with the people in power. But I also think that the works speak for themselves. The fact that Atlantics won the Grand Prix is because the Cannes jury kept recalling it throughout the festival, not this notion that people have to be tokenised.”
While Diop dedicates Atlantics to Senegal’s phantom youth, who died at sea while attempting to reach the shores of Spain, she is careful not to confine an entire generation to the migration narrative, when the vast majority remain in Dakar and build a life there. “This is why I wanted to tell this story from the purview of those who stay – to chronicle Penelope’s odyssey as opposed to Ulysses’,” she muses. Traoré, asked about his generation’s outlook, elaborates: “There used to be a lot of young men who’d head out to another continent on a pirogue because they wanted to help their parents. Today, youths are waking up and recognising that we can build a life for ourselves without taking off for the west. We can do it at home.” For her part, Diop has been vocal in her support for the Y’en a Marre (‘Fed Up’) movement of rappers and journalists, which mobilised the youth vote to help oust President Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 and ultimately “turned the page on the dark chapter of ‘Barcelona or Death’”.
Diop also made Atlantics to counter the media’s hijacking of the migrant narrative, wherein the disappeared are portrayed as nothing more than a pitiful and shapeless statistical mass. What gets lost in such myopic readings is the fact that mobility has been integral to west African societies for centuries, and that the reasons prompting such journeys can vary considerably, from economic survival to self-emancipation. As postcolonial Caribbean poet Derek Walcott wrote in “The Sea of History”, “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? Where is your tribal memory? Sirs, in that grey vault. The sea has locked them all. The sea is history.” With Atlantics, Diop not only pries open the grey vault to summon memories of historical dispossession. She also adds to the treasure chest of monuments, battles and martyrs contained in its sheer immensity: its “fatal attraction”, as the director describes it. Or, as 17-year-old Ada tells her lover mere minutes into the film, in a tender exchange to make you shiver: “You’re just watching the ocean – you’re not even looking at me.”
Atlantics is in UK cinemas and available to stream on Netflix from November 29
Hair Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group, make-up Michaela Bosch using Surratt Beauty, photographic assistants Josh Mathews, Amelia Hammond, make-up assistant Andie Tham