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‘Atlantics’ haunts its audience with a Senegalese story of love, class and capitalism

A prize-winner at Cannes and TIFF, director Mati Diop reveals how she found her voice as a filmmaker

Mati Diop knows what it’s like to be surrounded by towering artistic voices.

Her father, Wasis Diop, is a popular jazz musician. Her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, is best known for the influential Touki Bouki, which won the International Critics Award at Cannes in 1973. And before Mati Diop began directing, she was an actor, starring in French director Claire Denis’ 2008 drama 35 Shots of Rum.

Now, Diop has released her first feature film, Atlantics, a brooding, supernatural meditation on love, migration, capitalism, and class in postcolonial Senegal. After a brief theatrical run, the film is streaming on Netflix.

This year, Diop, whose mother is French and white and whose father is Senegalese, became the first black woman to have a film accepted into the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival. Atlantics was awarded the festival’s Grand Prix, which is second only to the Palme d’Or (won by Bong Joon-ho for Parasite). Diop also won the inaugural Mary Pickford Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which “recognizes an emerging female talent who is making groundbreaking strides in the industry.”

Atlantics centers on a teenage girl, Ada (Mame Bineta Sané). She is in love with her boyfriend Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who is fed up with being exploited by a developer named Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene). Realizing that challenging Ndiaye is fruitless, Souleiman decides to leave Dakar with a group taking a small boat to Spain. Meanwhile, Ada has agreed to marry a much older and wealthier man, Omar (Babacar Sylla) at the urging of her friends. Ada doesn’t love Omar, but he’s her best shot at a life of comfort. Diop follows Ada and the women who the migrant workers leave behind as they cope with their anguish, anger, and grief when they learn the boat carrying the men has capsized in the Atlantic.

I spoke to Diop about casting Ada, creating a stirring work of cinema, and not being intimidated by the artistic legacy of her family.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Tell me how you knew you had found the right actor to play Ada.

The day I met her for the first time, it was after seven months of having looked for her. The whole cast was found and she was still missing. So it started to become a bit worrying. We were about to delay the shooting and you can imagine how stressing [that is]. You know, you don’t have your lead and you’re shooting in less than three months. And I always imagined that I was going to take at least three months for rehearsals.

So, it was getting a bit scary. I was scouting and I just saw a girl coming out of her house and entering back. It was pretty subliminal. And I continued walking, and I was thinking of her, and it was, ‘Wait, this girl I just saw has something. She’s the right age; she was very cute. She has something. Should I go back? I don’t know. But, if I go back, she would be good, but her parents would never let me work with her because of the love scenes.’ But I said to my team, ‘Let’s go back. Let’s go talk to her.’

And so we went to talk to her and I thought she looked pretty and a bit wild. I first took a picture, just to show the casting director that she was the exact right age, like in between childhood and teenager. It was perfect. Then I was afraid she was a bit too beautiful.

She was very shy at the beginning. But we really built the relationship and the work. Stone after stone, really. And I was so lucky that one member of her family was a bit more open to cinema, and to culture, to understand that it could be a great experience for her. Because it was so challenging to find a girl in the suburbs of Dakar who could do that. Who could handle a love scene.

Why?

Even some of the most open-minded collaborators in Senegal would tell me, ‘In the suburbs, we’ll never find a girl who’ll accept that. Because her parents will never let a girl do that in Dakar today.’

Because it would be poorly received?

No. Because of the tradition and religion. Parents wouldn’t let their girl do that. It’s a love scene. So, it was pretty miraculous to have found her.

Ada (Mame Bineta Sane, right) clutches her beloved in Atlantics.

Courtesy of Netflix

How much was your background in acting helpful? Particularly when you’re directing a first-time actor like Sané?

It’s huge. I mean, I think I don’t even realize it myself, how important it is to be myself an actress. When I direct my actors, I’m absolutely aware of where they are, which place I put them. And I think my directions are very concrete. I think it makes me anticipate what they could do, or could not. Or measure their vulnerability. And also understanding in terms of frequency, body language, which energy I should give them. It’s really intuitive, you know? And quite physical, I feel. I think it’s how you look at them, how you talk to them, the tone of your voice. It has a lot to do with body language. Ada, the main character, doesn’t speak French, and I don’t speak Wolof. But it was never an obstacle for us.

What’s the background of Ada’s relationship with Omar? She’s so young and he seems very adult and experienced. How did the two of them get together?

It’s a very common thing now, in Senegal, to get married with somebody you don’t necessarily love. But Ada comes from a low-class family and, as a pretty girl, she has the possibility to be chosen by a man. It’s definitely an arranged marriage. She’s marrying him to elevate her social life and the class of her family. Omar is an immigrant. He has made a fortune in Europe and has come back.

It was to talk about the fact that a lot of women give men much more value as human beings when they are rich. It’s like coming back from Europe gives these men more value, more credibility. So, it’s really a very capitalist and very clearly strategic approach. And it’s not even hidden. It’s accepted.

And Omar, on his side — it’s not things that I expect my audience to understand, but I know it and when you depict a society in a film, you don’t necessarily explain everything. When you’re Senegalese and Muslim, when you reach around 30 years old, even before, you have a big pressure from your family to get married. Omar lives in Europe, but I think he went back to the country to reassure his mother. To get married to Ada, her distant cousin.

I’m not coming with a judgment from the Western world. I’m just depicting a situation that happened.

For him, it’s just so his family will leave him alone. Anyway, he’s going to go back to Rome for his work, and only comes back two months a year to Dakar. So, it’s an arrangement for both Ada and Omar. They don’t love each other. They don’t even desire each other.

I’m not coming with a judgment from the Western world. I’m just depicting a situation that happened. But I still feel it’s violent for any person, a woman of her age, to be so much in love with a man, with Souleiman, like truly in love. Like in a very pure way. And the reason why this love can’t exist is because of economic and social issues.

On one hand, there’s this marriage. On the other hand, Souleiman has not been paid, so he has to go find work in Europe. So, the story’s about the beauty, the pureness and the innocence, mostly, of a love that cannot exist today. And that’s what Ada’s girlfriends are telling her: ‘Who has time and who can afford a love story? Nobody except you, innocent, pure girl. Are you crazy?’

Ada’s handbag feels like the one piece of luxury she has. Everything else about her is simple, even in comparison to her friends. Is it a gift from Omar?

Absolutely.

I really wanted to feel that Ada is already bought, through some elements. And that, even though she’s there in front of Souleiman, who is the most gorgeous boy ever and loves her, that she has already one foot out because she’s into this strategy. Which also makes her not that pure, you know? She would be too boring if there was only the purity, you know? But she’s also into her strategy.

Some details disappear in films because you have so many other things to do. I’ll just give you an example: I wanted Ada, when they are in the luxury hotel, I wanted her to have a wig with straight hair. Like a wig that is supposed to make African girls more Western.

I wish I had kept that idea in mind, because it would have been so eloquent, I think. But I forgot. But I really regret that. But it just reminds me of these little details that say so much.

You have relationships with these larger-than-life filmmakers like your uncle or Claire Denis. When did you discover your own cinematic voice and feel confident in it?

It came little by little, through experimenting different films, through experiencing work. It’s something that was built, movie after movie. Experiences after experiences. Both as a director and an actress. It’s something that’s been built and is still being built. I was raised in a very strong, artistic family, with both my uncle as a filmmaker, my father as a musician. My mother as a photographer, a very strong personality and artist. I always had to affirm myself if I wanted to exist in this family of very strong talent and ego. I really better stand for my own thing. It was very inspiring to evolve in that family. But it could have been a bit stifling.

But it wasn’t, actually. I did something quite crazy when I think about it. Like to do A Thousand Suns, which is a film which dialogues with my uncle’s masterpiece, Touki Bouki. It was my first cinema project ever, and I think it was a way to look at this film like, ‘Hey, you, masterpiece of my family, let’s talk. Let’s fight. I can look at you in the eye, and make my own film.’

Ibrahima Traoré as Souleiman in Atlantics.

Courtesy of Netflix

Let’s talk about the wedding procession in Atlantics. There’s a harshness and a dissonance there, not the sort of dreamy, beautiful aesthetic we associate with brides. You really get the sense —

— of nightmare.

It arrives in a moment of the film where Ada doesn’t sleep at night anymore because her reality shifts after the moment of Souleiman’s disappearance, and she has no idea if he has reached Spain or not. It was really the idea to have her reality transform her relationship with time, with day, with night. There’s a mix between her nightmares and the reality, and she wakes up at night. When she’s having a meeting with Omar at this luxury hotel, she’s not being the perfect future wife. She’s just crashing under, because she doesn’t sleep at night. She’s totally shifting to a very melancholic mood, you know? And she’s not able to pretend anymore.

And then the wedding arrives, and I wanted it to look like a nightmare, from the perspective of Ada. We’re really with her and we know how she feels and how sad and confused she is about the disappearance of Souleiman.

Also, it was a way to show all the pressure on her shoulders, the collective society on her shoulders. Because it’s really something that is here in the society for centuries. And this contemporary girl of today is entering that collective rite.

I wanted to film it as a nightmare, but this kind of scene is very tricky, because I didn’t want the family of Omar to look like bad people, these bad Muslim people, who don’t respect the right of their children. It would have pleased so many Western audiences to see that because some white and Western audiences love to be reassured in the way they sometimes picture foreign cultures.

Some places of the world, like Africa or Arabs, have been depicted by a certain Western groups of people — they ridicule their local beliefs and rituals, or folklore. And so, to show today, a scene who really reflects the local culture, is very delicate.

And without judgment.

It’s very delicate. So, for me, it was even therapeutic, you know? Because I also have things to repair.

What do you mean?

I mean that, as a nonwhite person, I’ve been very disturbed by the way I’ve seen depicted certain images from Africa, by other groups of people. And how misrepresented, or badly represented they were. And making images in these places today is also a way to reconstruct another image of them and a more accurate image of their own beliefs, of their own realities, of their own humanity.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.