Mati Diop talks about being Cannes Film Festival’s first black female director

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Mati Diop

Mati Diop found out she is the first black female director to be accepted into the competition lineup in the 72-year history of France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival in rather unceremonious fashion.

She read it online.

“I discovered it myself, reading the article,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Ford. “It was a rather odd experience for me because I approached it almost as somebody learning this, as an outsider. What I represent exceeds me and does not belong to me.”

As previously reported, Diop is one of four female directors in the festival’s 21-film lineup, still a low percentage but an improvement from recent years.

Diop was in post-production on her film “Atlantics” when she found out she had been accepted into the competition lineup in Cannes.

“I was very happy, but at the same time, it really took me a little bit of time to process my feelings because I felt a mixture of apprehension and joy,” says Diop who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter from Paris, sometimes using a translator as she alternated between her native French and English.

“I began to ask some questions like, was my film really being accepted for what it was? Was it being heard for what it had to say? Or was the fact that I’m a woman filmmaker also a factor that played in this process?”

Diop’s father, jazz musician Wasis Diop, is from Senegal, and her mother is French. The filmmaker was born and raised in Paris, although she visited Senegal often as a child.

“In France, we have a very different relationship in terms of defining blackness. I’m not called black — I’m called a Frenchwoman,” she says. “But I have noticed that in America, as soon as you have a little — even 10 or 20 percent of blackness — you become black. Being black is not something I think about every day when I wake up. I don’t think of myself as white or as black. I just think about me as me.”

Diop has a family history with the festival: Her uncle, renowned Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, won the International Critics Award for his 1973 film “Touki Bouki.” She tells The Hollywood Reporter she has mixed feelings that her first time as a filmmaker in Cannes happens to be a significant first for the festival as well.

“It was sad to learn that in 2019 such a thing had never happened before — there is still a long way to go. If as a young African filmmaker I can represent a minority that still has very little access to that kind of selection, that’s a good thing,” she says. “But I’d rather stay a little detached. It was almost as if my smaller story was encountering a much larger story. I really want the film to be taken for what it is, not for what I represent.”

Diop made her first short film at 22 while also acting and writing. After starring in Claire Denis’ 2008 film “35 Shots of Rum,” the French auteur encouraged her to pursue her filmmaking ambitions.

“What I really wanted to do was to return to Senegal, to return to my origins and try to reconnect with them,” Diop says. “When I went, I realized that I had arrived at a very particular moment in Senegalese history.”

At the time, many of the country’s young people were choosing to make a dangerous — and often deadly — journey via boat to Europe to find a better life. Diop decided to film some of them, including her cousin, as they prepared for the journey.

After her short documentary, “Atlantiques,” was done, she turned her focus to making her first feature film. The story, set in Dakar, follows a 17-year-old woman whose boyfriend sets off to find a better life by sea. She shot the film in Dakar during the summer of 2018 using local actors.

“What I was really bothered by was the way in which the media was treating the whole event as it was happening,” Diop says. “I wanted to show what their path had been and also show the point of view of the women and the people who were left behind.”






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