Born and raised in France of Senegalese heritage, director Mati Diop made a sparkling debut at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival when she made history as the first black woman to have a film compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or. Eventually earning the runner-up Grand Prix prize, “Atlantics” is set in the Senegalese capital city Dakar, where economic hardships have led to waves of migration. Following one of those instances of migration, a mesmerizing tale of love, loss and supernatural mysteries emerges. Ahead of the film’s upcoming release in theaters and on Netflix, I spoke with Diop about the film’s themes and its timely sociocultural relevance. Below is an edited version of our chat.
Shane Slater: You previously explored similar themes of migration in your first short “Atlantiques” in 2009. How did the subsequent “migrant crisis” influence this debut feature?
Mati Diop: I don’t think a “migrant crisis” is going on. I think a political and moral crisis is going on. The migrant crisis is an invention. The film takes place in a very specific place with a very specific sociocultural and economic situation that has nothing to do with another country. The story of migration in Dakar is one of economic migration but it’s not really the subject of my film. We understand that the boys leave because of unemployment and not receiving their pay. But it’s more about the experience of this woman after the disappearance of a boy. It was very connected to my own relationship with Dakar and what happened there at the time.
It’s true that while the script was being written that a global migration situation was getting more complex. It’s very interesting when you’re writing a project for a lot of years because not only does the city or country you’re writing about change, but the world also changes. So it just made me feel comforted in the fact that my film would feel like it is in reaction to the complex situations we are going through. The world changes so fast nowadays, so it’s very challenging. It puts filmmakers in a place of responsibility, depending on your relationship with your cinema. Whether it’s political or not, whether it’s connected to reality or not.
SS: How did you approach your own sense of responsibility in collaborating with the people of Dakar on a this sensitive topic that has affected their lives?
MD: Concerning the actors, the most important thing was that they were very much aware of what the film was defending. What life and what reality. To make sure that the people embodying the characters were aware that it represents the life of their people. For example, Souleiman, played by Ibrahima Traoré, is embodying the youth. That’s why I wanted to find someone from a construction site whose life and experiences were not too far away from the reality of the boys in the film. I needed him to be concerned about it and be connected to the social background of the story. So the actors are really involved.
SS: Images of the ocean are a recurring motif in film, without actually showing the characters in the water. What was your thinking behind the symbolism of water?
MD: It’s more of a mental territory. It’s never really filmed or approached as something detached from the mental territory. The first time we see the ocean is when we are very close to Souleiman, while his partners are singing and getting into a trance. He’s in his own mind and the editing really gives a strong relationship between him and the ocean. He’s already possessed by it. The ocean is really considered a mental territory, a projection of fantasy and how the boys’ memories will be held in it and become omnipresent. It also becomes a fantasy element with an influence on the people of the city. Like a force of attraction.
SS: How did you decide to explore the spiritual aspects of the story and the cultural beliefs relating to the djinn?
MD: I really wanted the fantasy dimension of the film to be connected to the local imaginary and the very strong influence of Muslim figures like the djinn. It’s very interesting how depending on the different cultures that Islam meets, it gives birth to different imaginaries. So in Senegal, it’s a meeting point between African traditions and Muslim culture. And it gives birth to a singular relationship to the invisible. There’s a figure who really influenced me – a djinn lover. It’s a spirit who takes possession of girls at night and makes love to them. In Senegal, when a woman is having trouble in her relationship, sometimes she is suspected to have a djinn lover. I was very intrigued by that. The fantasy aesthetic of the film is really a mix of local culture, but also very influenced by a gothic, European sensibility. It’s a hybrid of contrasting influences.