Known previously for her work as an actor in films by art-house favourites such as Claire Denis and Matias Pineiro, Mati Diop’s masterful feature debut as a writer and director, the Senegal-set ghost story Atlantics, made history when it premiered at Cannes this year, becoming the first film directed by a black woman to be featured in competition at the festival. Atlantics went on to claim another piece of history when it won the Jury Grand Prize, making Diop the first black woman to win an award in the French festival’s entire 72-year history.
The Globe and Mail’s Sarah-Tai Black sat down with Diop just after Atlantics’ North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past autumn – and ahead of the film being selected as the official Senegalese entry for best international film at the 2020 Academy Awards – for an in-depth conversation about the histories and intentions behind her first feature.
Can you tell me about the development of the film? It has a purposeful ease to it that makes it seem as if you’ve been thinking about this story and its characters for quite some time.
It was already in my mind back when I shot my first short film in Dakar in 2008. It was a very particular period in terms of the social climate in Senegal; many young Senegalese were migrating to Spain. I was there to work on a film called 1,000 Suns, but I interrupted that project as I was swept into the urgency of the environment. I was working in a neighbourhood where a lot of young people were preparing to migrate, and through my cousin, I was able to have conversations with many of them about that specific lived experience. Atlantics, the feature, embodies that moment. All of the sensations in the social atmosphere there struck me, particularly the feeling that these young people were so taken with the idea of being elsewhere, that they were no longer “here” anymore.
When I showed what I had been working on with the short Atlantics to a mentor of mine, they kept telling me, “You see a mirror in front of you, but you are no longer here. And when you decide to leave, that means you’re already dead.” So I think I already knew that I was shooting a ghost movie, even at that point. The short film is only 15 minutes and I wanted to capture the mythological dimension of migration, so I knew after I had finished with the short that a longer film needed to be made because it was a period that deeply marked me. This feature has always been here in my life; it’s a very personal gesture. This story of migration is not only about movement out of Senegal, but the need I had to travel back to explore my origins.
Those emotional textures of disconnection or of being perpetually in transit and trying to reconcile that with identity and a sense of home is beautifully materialized in the film – particularly the way in which you’ve realized this feeling and specific social moment through the fantastic or the figure of the ghost. Can you speak to using this element as both a filmic device as well as cultural narrative specific to West Africa and black Muslim experience?
The idea of a fantasy narrative set in Senegal is not exactly a prospect that is wholly disconnected from reality, because fantasy is very much part of the lived reality there. I was very happy to explore genre, but I was more interested in the intersections between fantasy and reality. When I was in the early stages of filmmaking, I wanted these ghost figures to emerge directly from the ocean, almost like in a Japanese horror film.
Atlantics itself is a mixture of so many influences. I’m very interested in certain Senegalese figures, especially those influenced by the Muslim imaginary, such as djinns, who are invisible spirits who circulate and take form amongst us. There is one in particular called faru rab, which is well known in Senegal; it’s like an invisible lover who takes possession of a woman at night. In Dakar, if a woman has a problem with her husband, often times people will say it’s because of this spirit. I was very intrigued by this figure and also stories from Bretagne, a western region in France, which is geographically open to the Atlantic, where a lot of Senegalese immigrants have settled. There are many tales or legends of seeing Senegalese people on boats from afar or of Senegalese who never arrive, assumed to have drowned, and whose spirits go on to haunt the inhabitants of the villages there.
You can see that aspect of past and present informing each other in this way that divests of Western conceptions of time or reality.
And a huge part of my project with this film was to treat migration in a way that explored those temporal dimensions beyond what has been proven as “natural” scientific fact. This multilayered conception of time and space is something that is as old as humanity and is very much related to our lived dynamics.
Your style and vision in terms of your filmmaking feels so vocal in an intergenerational or even ancestral sense. Did you have any drive to speak to or to be in conversation with the art that your father [musician Wasis Diop] or uncle [filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty] have made?
I am definitely influenced by them. Their work has impacted the world of art, cinema and music, and my father in particular took up a lot of space in my imagination. In terms of Djibril, he was extremely demanding on the language and narrative of film, which was very personal and very radical, but also in his efforts to speak directly to the audience of his films. This is both true and not true, of course – [his film] Touki Bouki was a little too intellectual at the time of its release; it was too ahead of its time. Despite that, I feel there is an emotional frequency of the colonized African mind that is very legible in his films and that he uses the language of cinema to reaffirm African language in this way. And that is my main influence I draw from him, which is not just my own to claim, but shared. In that vein, Africa has been given a specific image and story by the Western world, and I felt that it was very important to put my energy into making films in Senegal both for myself and the communities there. For me, that is the strength of cinema. I love cinema as entertainment, but in my own work, I see it as a social tool.
Did you see your own context, what you referred to earlier as French-African, informing these ideas and histories?
It made me more aware of the fact that I wanted to sever this image of Africa that has been popularized by its colonizers. I think that this is a story that is specifically Senegalese, and it’s important to pay respect to the specific time and place of Dakar. It’s an African film, addressed to African people and others who can identify with it. The main character is kind of a portrait of me, of my African side, but I also can’t talk about identity in that way because it’s so intertwined and in some ways so undefinable. Perhaps the distance I have from my subject and its place makes it easier for me to talk about it. Sometimes that is very necessary.
What do you dream of for the future of cinema?
In many ways, I am already living my dream. I had a very specific story to tell, with strong black characters, and I’m ready to see more of this. I’m extremely tired of seeing only white faces in cinema. It’s important that people realize there is something wrong with that, that there must be an impossibility for that to continue. I think it’s very important for filmmakers to take their stories back and share them with the world. I wish to see more films made by artists who control their own stories, especially from parts of the world which maybe haven’t had access to make stories that are self-determining.
As you know, the film won the Grand Prix at Cannes and was bought by Netflix, which means that it will be seen by a wider audience, and I believe that accessible methods like that are crucial, especially with a film such as this which has been made with 100 per cent of myself. What I mean by that is a complete affirmation of a personal style and language; a way of knowing what you need to say without compromise and knowing that your audience cannot just be other artists. This might involve, as it did for me, choosing non-professional actors or producers who have never worked on a feature – people who are willing to take risks in order to speak to what they know must be proven true.
Atlantics opens Nov. 22 in Toronto; Nov. 28 in Winnipeg; and Nov. 29 in Montreal and on Netflix.
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