Holding Grace in Mystery: Mati Diop on Atlantics

Holding Grace in Mystery: Mati Diop on Atlantics

Making history in Cannes earlier this year with her debut feature, Mati Diop instantly proved herself as a singular talent. Caitlin Quinlan sits down with the director to explore her beguiling first film.

The profound poetry of Atlantics becomes easier to grasp when hearing director Mati Diop speak of her film in person. The feature, Diop’s debut following a handful of richly layered short films, is an aching ode to a lost generation in Dakar, Senegal; both to the young men who gave their lives to the sea in search of something better away from home, and to those left behind as secondary victims of this sacrifice. Transcending genre and lyrical in tone, Atlantics is a remarkable film by a filmmaker capable of holding such grace and power in her reflection on trauma. 

CQ: What was the process of making the move to a feature film from shorts? 

MD: I had a first one in mind, which was the adaptation of a Norwegian novel set in the French Alps. I made a short film which was a preparation to that feature, and I really enjoyed doing it but I remember being in the mixing room and telling myself I wasn’t really able to dedicate a feature to a story that has much less of a political impact and reach. After I shot Atlantiques [the short], I was very haunted by what happened there and I felt that the impact that the short film had on a very small cinephile audience through festivals was good, but that the migration wave in Dakar in the 2000s was something that needed to be shared with a much larger audience. I felt the world didn’t need another French film about blonde white girls. The cinema I was able to make in Dakar was something nobody other than me could do. 

It was very important that my first feature would be engaged in Dakar because I felt that this was exactly where stories need to be told because there are not enough of them, and that the situation and the people I wanted to talk about were not represented – or told in a way that was not representative of reality. My heritage is very strong, and I felt I couldn’t really start making movies for no reason, or just to please myself. So at some point I really decided to engage myself in a more political gesture, because that’s what I need to put the energy into something. I don’t think I could find the faith to direct a film until the end, unless I know that the project goes beyond cinema. 

There is a way in which women are often spoken about as bearers of trauma, and the film realises this with a bodily manifestation of both current and generational traumas.

I was very much aware of that, and on one hand I wanted to write female characters and film them as I know them, as girls I know there. But it was also very delicate to film women in relationships with men. I didn’t want to make a film about women who wait for the men, who can’t define themselves outside their relationships with them. I was even a bit too self-conscious, like how am I going to escape from the male gaze? I don’t want to be making a film about women who can’t survive without them, I don’t want the film to turn like that, but it was tricky. 

In some ways the film approaches this as an appreciation of love as a hopeful force instead?

Yeah, absolutely, but I had to fight against these tricks you know, and also the archetype of Penelope who is a bit of a passive woman who waits for Ulysses. At the end Ada’s not passive at all. 

Turning The Odyssey on its head feels crucial here, especially when Ada has the moment of self-actualisation at the end.

Yes, I wanted the characters to be complex, not to be stereotypes of strong African women who survive everything – because this is such a cliche. The idea was really to film them as survivors of an everyday life, and to have Ada transform herself into this process. At the beginning of the movie for me she’s a bit like a sleepwalker, she’s about to begin a life which she didn’t choose for herself, marrying this rich immigrant and lying to herself because the one she loves is Souleiman. The more Souleiman disappears, the more it reveals the true nature of reality that’s around Ada and the hypocrisy of these social rules. The lie of this wedding and the loss of her lover makes this whole social game impossible to stand. I really liked this idea that the possible loss of somebody you love makes you open your eyes to the true nature of things. I think it’s very beautiful. 

Love seems to be at the crux of the film.

Yes, and that’s why it’s so important to choose people that you really love. The people I chose for the film are not only people I think would be good or act well, they are really people I love. The girls around Ada are people I would choose in my life if I was Ada. They are real and we love them the way they are, and each one of them has their own distinct personality. It’s even more important when you make a film in Africa, because it’s a place that has been so misrepresented through such cliches that it’s even more important to create characters that are really real, that anybody can identify with. It’s also a reparations process. I was so, so sick of all these cliches, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had really reached a level where it was a survival act to do this film. I did it for me, and I did it for a certain audience. I remember before I even shot the movie, I would imagine being in the theatre seeing black skin and black characters on that huge screen, and I was like yes, I want to see that!

How did the short film Atlantiques continue to influence the feature?

I think the story that Serigne [the protagonist of the short film] told me that night put a spell on me. There’s something in that story, in that moment of shooting at night, then diving into his story for months editing it – it opened a door to me to a territory of fiction. Atlantiques the short is a very modest portrait, it was done in a very minimal way, but I think what he says in that film is immense. I was not done with talking about that. In the short we also see his sister at his funeral, she looks at the camera and she doesn’t say anything. I think that’s the shot that marked me the most as a filmmaker. The look she gave me inside the camera really shocked me, and I think the character of Ada was born that day. I wanted to tell her story next. In Atlantiques [the short],as a filmmaker all I wanted to hear and make an audience hear was in that film, and now in the feature I wanted to talk about the experience for these girls to lose their lovers, brothers, friends at this age and to film the life of a neighbourhood. 

The film feels like a portrait of girlhood in its own right too, and the demands placed on women are very present in the film.

The Virgin Suicides is a film which immensely marked me, and I think that Atlantics has a lot to do with this film even though in The Virgin Suicides it’s the boys who witness the suicides of all the sisters. I’ve been having a hard time giving a list of films that influenced Atlantics because the most influential thing was the city itself. There is The Fog by John Carpenter but there is also Sofia Coppola’s film. 

Speaking of the city and the space you were working in, how did you choose the locations, especially the club? 

The only set we really built was the club. I was looking for a club with mirrors by the ocean and I found one when going out with friends, so I first experienced the place as myself existing there. At around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning while we were there partying, I suddenly felt, ‘Wait it’s here. The club is this one.’ I lived in this place before I felt it was there, which is a beautiful way to choose a place. I was on the terrace and the music was very loud and the ocean was crazy and I was there. And I almost had vertigo, like I was actually in my own film. We changed the place a little, we added some mirrors, but it’s an incredible place. 

The bedrooms are all very important also, we never see these kinds of rooms in cinema. The place where Ada lives looks a lot like my grandmother’s place in Dakar. I remember my cousin told me how happy he was to see these very typical interiors in the film, to really enter into people’s intimacy. A girl like Ada spends a lot of time in her house and doesn’t go out much. I was imagining for the girls who had experienced something like they had, they would stay in their rooms and think about their lovers all day and sleep there, and they hear the sound of the ocean in these rooms too. The bedroom is like a dream box.


Just like in The Virgin Suicides as well!

Yes yes!

The ocean really infiltrates the film through Fatima Al Qadiri’s beautiful score too.

Yes, and I was actually a bit ashamed to tell Fatima – and I didn’t want to because I thought she would freak out, or maybe I did tell her –that The Virgin Suicides soundtrack is definitely one of my favourite soundtracks ever. Now I’m going to be talking about The Virgin Suicides all the time! 

For me, a fantasy film is also a sound piece, and there is so much emotion in the film that could not exist through the characters or the words or anything else than music. It makes it hard to talk about music, because all the emotions it brings are not emotions I want to put words on. But they have a lot to do with the depths and with the infinite mystery and sadness of the loss of these boys. I really wanted for her to create a hymn. You know, the film also exists as a reaction to the fact that there was no monument to the dead made in Dakar after this wave of migration that killed a lot of people, and the film metaphorically was also a monument to that period. I think that, at the end, one of the things I wanted the music to leave as a trace was a hymn for them all.

Caitlin Quinlan (@csaquinlan) is a film writer and Bechdel Test Fest team member from London. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies, Sight & Sound, and The Skinny.

READ ME is a platform for female-led writing on film hosted by Girls on Tops. Louisa Maycock (@louisamaycock) is Commissioning Editor and Ella Kemp (@efekemp) is Contributing Editor.

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