Set in Senegal’s bustling capital Dakar, Mati Diop’s Atlantics is mesmerizing, poetic and haunting. The filmmaker is the first Black woman to win a Jury Grand Prize at Cannes Film Festival. As the first frame of Atlantics was displayed on the screen, it became clear why this story stood out. Based on her 2009 short film of the same name, Atlantics follows Ada (Mama Sané), a captivating and headstrong woman banging against the traditional Muslim norms of her culture to speak for herself and listen to her heart.
Engaged to a wealthy but arrogant man, Ada longs for her true love Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who has sailed across the sea in search of better work opportunities. As her wedding day looms –Ada becomes increasingly haunted by memories of her lover, despite her family and friends urging her to look towards her future. Atlantics isn’t just about love–greed, class status and politics are also themes in this film. The added layer of supernatural mystique only serves to draw the audience in further—leaving them enraptured until the very last moment of the film.
Ahead of Atlantics’ Netflix debut, STYLECASTER sat down to chat with Diop about her inspiration for the film, her filmmaking process, and what it has meant to be the first Black female Palme d’Or winner.
“Atlantics the short, was initially supposed to be a scene in a movie that became a short film,” Diop explained. “I was witnessing a lot of young people leaving the country for Europe. What was most striking, was not the fact that they wanted to leave, but how they were doing it. They were crossing the ocean by boat. That’s a real risk to your life.”
When Diop initially made the short film, she had no idea what would come of it. “The young man I filmed throughout the night who was crossing the sea– it was unclear to both of us what would happen,” she revealed. “His story was epic and poetic. That’s what I actually wanted to capture. I wanted to hear a crossing from the point of view of somebody who experienced it. But it needed to be positioned heroically. I wanted to make sure to add dimension to the story as opposed to how the media was treating these people. I was so sick of it. As a French Senegalese filmmaker with the tools of cinema, I decided to put my cinema at the service of that situation. It took me a little while before I realized that, but I knew I needed to continue to talk about this situation.”
Adding the supernatural aspect to her story was also important to Diop’s vision. “I was moved by the connection between reality and fantasy,” she reflected. “There was also a coherence as I was talking about a lost generation—a ghost generation. These people have disappeared in the ocean, trying to reach a better future. I felt that there was nothing better than using a fantasy film to talk about this ghost generation. I wanted to talk about loss, about being hunted by these boys in the neighborhood–to really feel the difference between their presence in the neighborhood and their absence, and how it just transforms the society and the women who stayed behind.”
Finding the right actress to embody Ada was the next piece of the puzzle for Diop. “Mama,” Diop said thoughtfully. “She is astounding, she’s such a marvel. When you look at her, you can see all of her expressions on her face, and she’s so fierce, which I love. She’s fierce, strong and bold. What I like about her is that she’s so complex. She’s not a victim. She goes through a permanent metamorphosis and a rite of passage. I needed somebody, who could really transform. This is Ada’s odyssey. When I saw Mama in the street in front of her house, I knew she was the perfect age for the character. I thought she was beautiful, but it was definitely not enough. I had to do at least three or four auditions with her because at the beginning she was very shy.”
In addition to Sané– Atlantics is full of non-actors which is Diop’s preference. “As I was talking about Ada’s journey, Mama was actually going through that in real life,” she stated. “She really transformed, and that’s was so beautiful–to work with an actor that hasn’t done it before. They really transform in front of your eyes.”
Now, several months removed from Cannes — Diop is still processing her major win. “It’s heavy, not only as a Black woman,” she said. “It’s being Black, being a woman, and this is my first feature; it’s a lot. It was obviously a lot on my shoulders, mostly because I had just finished the film. So, I was coming out of the editing room where I’d spent seven months working like crazy with my editor to make the film exists. And from this place of pure creation, I was thrown into Cannes. I was so engaged in that work, in that film, that I see no accidents, no misunderstanding as to why I’m here, I take responsibility and stand up to that position.”
Still, despite the strides that women and people of color have made in cinema, there is a long road ahead. “I think that we all should take responsibility,” she said. “Inclusivity should be in our work but we also benefit from the collective change. I have a lot of gratitude for that, and but also a consideration for our work, in addition, my work in all work.”
With Atlantics headed to Netflix, the globe will finally able to look at Diop’s film –and she’s really curious to see how it will be received. “I care so much,” she explained. “The film is definitely addressed to an audience and maybe that’s why it’s being heard.”
Atlantics begins playing in select theaters on November 15, 2019. it begins streaming on Netflix November 29, 2019