The North American premiere of Mati Diop’s unparalleled feature debut Atlantics at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival defined that old chestnut ‘festival buzz’, its impact felt from the excited chatter amongst those patiently lining with precious tickets to claim their much-sought-after seats to – more formally – the fact that Diop was awarded the inaugural TIFF Mary Pickford Award to recognize emerging women’s talent.
The stir Diop and Atlantics caused in Toronto was bookended by the filmmaker previously winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival where it had its world premiere, the film also a significant moment in that festival’s history more broadly: Atlantics was the first film directed by a Black woman to compete for the Palme d’Or. More recently, Atlantics was selected as Senegal’s entry to the 92nd Academy Awards, to be considered for the Best International Feature Film category.
With Atlantics promptly snatched up for a Netflix release in late November after a US cinema release, Diop’s more formal accolades echo those of her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty, a groundbreaking Senegalese filmmaker whose iconic film Touki Bouki (1973) won the International Critics Award at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. And yet even before her success with Atlantics, Mati Diop was well-established as a vital figure in the industry on her own merits, both as a screenwriter, short film director, and, most famously, as an actor for her powerful performance as Josephine in Claire Denis’ 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum.
Atlantics is set in Senegal, where a young man called Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) is one of many young construction workers we meet in the midst of their discovery that they have been exploited by their employer, their promises of long-overdue wages now revealed to be empty. Hot and crushed into the back of a truck as he returns home, the desperate young men are forced to look for alternate ways to survive; these are the circumstances that leads Souleiman to the ill-fated decision to join many of the others in attempting the perilous journey to Spain in a poorly-equipped boat to find a better life as refugees.
But at the heart of Atlantics lies not Souleiman, but his young lover Ada (played in an extraordinary performance by Mame Bineta Sané). She is torn between two lives; on one hand, she feels intense family pressure to marry a wealthy man called Omar (Barbara Sylla) who she has no interest in, told constantly by her more conservative friends that it is a stroke of luck and that she should be grateful as the wedding looms. In striking contrast is Ada’s other life, defined by her friendship with a group of much wilder women – and – most of all, her passionate love for Souleiman.
Diop shrewdly takes the metaphorical notion of haunting – both of Ada by Souleiman, and of the world more broadly by the grim realities and desperation that leads people to attempt such dangerous border-crossings – and builds around it a deeply poetic and profoundly moving cinema experience. While not a ‘genre film’ in the traditional sense, Diop takes a strategic approach similar to that of fellow French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello and his recent movie Zombi Child in that both utilize the tropes and iconography of horror in films that transcend orthodox generic boundaries. While both films are built upon unambiguously political foundations, Diop in particular is masterful in her ability to communicate her tale of the subjectivity not simply of the refugee experience, but in the aftermath for those left behind.
But the power of Atlantics is ultimately in how these ideas of haunted doubles and spectral returns consolidate to build a bridge Ada must herself travel in order to face the complications and contradictions in her own life that she, as a young woman, has until now been powerless to control. Punctuated by exquisite images of the ocean itself that speaks of powers both timeless and elemental, the film gently documents how through Souleiman, Ada finds a new strength within herself to navigate the contradictions and tensions that had previously dominated her life. Atlantics
is not merely of love and labor lost, but is a beautiful, breath-taking reminder us that grief sometimes can teach us crucial lessons in complex, difficult ways.