With her new film Atlantics (Atlantique), writer/director Mati Diop has the distinction of not only being the first woman of color to have a film accepted into competition at the Cannes Film Festival, she is also the first to win the Grand Prix.
In the film, a group of Senegalese construction workers in Dakar have been denied months of pay. They leave one night in a tiny boat searching for a better life across the sea to Spain.
The movie’s heroine Ada grieves for the missing Soulemain, whom she loves in secret while betrothed to another, wealthier man. When a mysterious fire scorches her wedding bed, a detective is sent to investigate. He and Ada’s friends begin to appear as possessed by Soulemain and his dead boat mates, not least to terrify the arrogant building magnate who withheld their pay out of greed. Atlantics is not only a love story and supernatural take on economic disparity, it is a bold, visually sumptuous examination of womanhood, and the challenges of standing up against the demands of society as an African woman with limited means. Mati Diop was present at the Middleburg Film Festival, where we discussed the origin of the film’s story and character, as well as some of its powerful messages.
Leslie Combemale: In seeing the ghosts of the boys possess women, I thought about the power of sisterhood, as well as the fear men have of women who are standing in their own power. From your perspective, is part of this story about that, about the archetypes of women as they grow to adulthood and the fear of that from established patriarchy?
Mati Diop: Yes! All the themes you’ve just mentioned are definitely anchors in the film. It’s funny because it’s all about it, but at the same time, I don’t treat them as subjects in an overt way. It’s really the architecture of the society in which the film is based, the patriarchal aspect of it, how everything is built almost as a wall against women trying to empower themselves, to just follow and be at the service of men. Even though society is structured this way, the first vulnerable people of it in the film are boys. Boys that are being pressured by a very dysfunctional system, and a boss in a construction site that won’t pay these workers. On the other hand Ada is into this arranged marriage and though it’s not a forced marriage it is still presented as one of the only options open to her. Ada is working her own strategy too, she needs to level up her family and herself from their economic background, so she’s marrying this immigrant from Italy, which is also a way of talking about sometimes, in Senegal, people put more value in somebody from Europe, or who went to Europe and came back, which is very destructive to the way we see and value ourselves. The film was definitely about the blooming of a girl into a woman, but the heroines of my films the expansion of self and creation of Ada is made from the disappearance of the boys. My heroines and the sisterhood they have to build together has been given and made possible by the absence of the very vulnerable boys who feel they have to leave. Ultimately, they are all pressured from society, but in different ways. That’s also why I thought it was beautiful that these girls hold the spirits of the ones they’ve loved, wether they are lovers, brothers, or best friends. They are, in a way, building change, in spirit, together. At the end, this generation, whether boys or girls, each on their own, suffer the pressure of the destructive forces of capitalism. Of course there is this element in the movie of how Ada has to fight patriarchy, but also mostly how this generation has to overcome (transgress, transcend) old established rules.
Combemale: There’s a feminism to how you constructed Ada but patriarchy is bigger than just men and women and tradition, it’s an established way of creating wealth. There’s patriarchy in economics, and that’s one of the aspects of the film that is expressed in a really interesting complex way, though specific to Senegal. When you have girls that take on the spirits of boys, that is collaborative and cooperative, which is very anti-patriarchy. Also, by the very nature of bringing the souls of these boys into the bodies of these girls, it goes beyond what is masculine and feminine.
Diop: Yes. Absolutely. It’s true that these women under the possession of these boys were really exampling a new kind of representation of emancipation. They are both alive and dead, boy and girl, and you can’t put them in any category. It is both transgressive and transcendent in terms of race, gender, and even life.
Combemale: You were inspired to create this narrative feature in part from research—speaking to boys who were planning to depart to find a better life, and you said seemed to no longer be present. What is your perspective on presence, or being present, as essential to creating our own destinies as both men and women?
Diop: It’s true that when I’ve registered discussions I’ve had with young people were about to leave it impacted me deeply to witness how much they were possessed by the thought of being elsewhere, and the power of attraction on their minds that America and Europe had and has is like a virus. I witnessed that and is really the basis for the film. At that time I was even a bit worried because I almost felt that it was a direct effect from colonialism and I would see young people unconsciously convinced that a European or American life has more value than an African one. I was fearing that behind the economic reasons for their departure it was also about feeling less-than as people of color and Africans. I was very troubled by that kind of thinking. I also wondered, though, if these departures were maybe a new version of the rights of passage boys becoming men have been going through and that has marked African society for hundreds of years. Ultimately I know it has made a huge impression on me to see all these boys so driven to leave and so much in a sort of trance or taken up by this virus right in front of me and that essentially they were talking but they weren’t even there any more. They were becoming ghosts before my eyes.
As to the movie and my heroine, before the boys disappeared, Ada was not truly alive. She was like a ‘sleeping beauty’. It’s the disappearance of Soulemain, and his possible death, because once he is gone and she has no news, she doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive, the possibility of losing her love that wakes her up. It really makes her approach a new dimension of her life.
For me, the film is also about the tragedy of all the many many people who were and still are losing their lives to reach Spain. 40,000 disappeared from Dakar. For myself, I think I was haunted by that, and disturbed, and this film was a way to exorcise and give these deaths a meaning. We have to allow these deaths to make us question our own lives and make us ask ourselves if we are doing exactly what we want to do, and living for the important things like love and joy. We have to let these deaths, these tragedies, position ourselves differently in our own lives while we are still here and able. These people really take a huge risk. They have no idea if they will arrive in Spain, and many don’t. I will never and you will never be able to be in that position and I think my films always start where my ability to understand or truly stand in someone else’s shoes ends. I only can witness it and put my cinema at the service of certain subjects or people who deserve to be better understand or seen.
Combemale: Which is why I think aspects of your films are so emotionally and visually based, because what you are trying to get at is beyond words.
Diop: I definitely wrote Ada’s character, and her journey or odyssey as a right of passage, like through the disappearance and loss of her lover and his coming back as a ghost, she’s really faced with all her social mask. Her hypocrisy and her conditioning is falling apart, because suddenly death knocks at her door and makes her question to herself if she wants to live or only ever exist as a shadow of what she can be.
Soulemain comes back to remind her that, unlike him, she’s alive, and that the meaning of life is to live your life in alignment with your desires. The courage to live is the courage to make yourself cast off all the aspects of your life that are keeping you from being completely true to who you are. Also the message is that becoming a woman is becoming yourself, whether you will fall in love again with a man, or a woman, or however you move forward, it is about putting away all that you have in your life that isn’t yours, but was put on you from expectations of society and your upbringing.
I thought it was also important to try to find a way to also talk about my life as a Senegalese privileged Parisienne at the same time. Whether we come from low, middle, or upper class, we all start somewhere, and each one of us has to overcome our own conditioning that isn’t true to us as both individuals and as women, otherwise we just live our whole lives asleep, or as ghosts.