by Osamudiamen Joseph
The first thing one notices about Atlantics is the sound of the Atlantic Ocean in all its staggering immensity — its roaring is heard before the first frame of the film is even seen. Its presence pervades the movie both visually and sonically, casting a huge shadow over the characters and their environment. The ocean is an unfriendly ghost haunting them day and night, in their waking hours and in their dreams— an ever-present symbol of beauty and hope, of destruction and despair.
Before Atlantics, writer-director Mati Diop made Atlantiques (2009), an experimental short film which won the Louis Marcorelles Award at the Cinema du Reel in 2010. In Atlantiques, three young men sit around a fire at night as one of them, Serigne, recounts the tale of his harrowing experience crossing the ocean on a boat to Spain. The journey he reminisces on is a terrible one and yet, he is considering making the trip again. His determination is born out of necessity. Like the other young men around him, Serigne needs to escape Senegal in search of greener pastures abroad and that is the easiest option available to him.
With Atlantiques, French-Senegalese filmmaker, Mati Diop, sought to shine a light on the Senegalese refugee crisis which reached insane levels in the 2000s. Her short film, unlike portrayals of the crisis in the media, humanises the people caught between a rock and a hard place, between the devils at home and the deep blue ocean. Atlantics (2019) serves as the spiritual sequel to Atlantiques (2009) in that while it doesn’t feature the same characters, it is still set in Dakar and also explores the theme of migration.
However, this time Diop casts her attention to the people left behind. It was men who usually made the dangerous sea crossings to Europe in search of jobs, no matter how menial, to enable them provide for their wives, sisters and children back home, and in her feature directorial debut, together with co-writer, Oliver Demangel, Mati Diop weaves a tale of love and loss, of beauty and despair, centered on the equally devastating predicament of the women left behind.
Atlantics defies easy classification; it is best described as a supernatural romantic drama film. It recalls the Third World Cinema of Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambéty in its use of non-actors and themes of anti-imperialism and tensions between Africa and the West and at the same time, feels like a piece of French arthouse cinema at its most raw and unpretentious.
In the first scene, we are dropped into the harsh reality of construction workers who have been denied their wages for months. The skyscraper they’re building is so huge that when it is first shown, about half of its length is out of frame. The men have been working there for three years by that point and one day, all their livelihood is stripped away by greed.
The main character at the centre of Atlantics, is Ada (Mamé Bineta Sané), an opinionated teenager who is in love with Souleiman. The first time we see them, they’re on opposite sides of a track as a train chugs past. Ada and Souleiman only have to glance at each other, passing a smile between them, for the audience to see how deeply in love with each other they are. For the movie to work, the audience needs to be invested in their relationship, and it is impressive that they are able to communicate such intense feelings in about five minutes, especially for Sané who is a first-time actor. The couple hangs out at the beach for a while and then Souleiman says he has something to tell Ada. It’s urgent. “Wait till tonight,” Ada tells him. This is the last time she will see Souleiman, in the flesh at least.
Souleiman works as part of the crew building the skyscraper. It’s been four months since they have been paid. They are in debt and cannot afford to provide for their families. Souleiman even says at one point, “I wait until it’s dark before I go home. That’s not right.” Together with the rest of the building crew, he has decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Ada heads to the club later that night in hopes of seeing Souleiman but he is nowhere to be found. Her friend, Dior, breaks the news to her, “Ada, the boys have gone. Out to sea.” About twenty-five minutes in, Ada reveals in a voiceover that Souleiman doesn’t make it to Europe. A big fish caught by some fishermen turns out to not be a fish at all but Souleiman’s lifeless body.
The movie continues to explore Ada’s life in great detail as she marries Omar (Babacar Sylla), a man she doesn’t love, based on the wishes of her parents. Mati Diop expertly blends the realism of living in a Dakar under the crushing weight of capitalism with a supernatural ghost story that recalls Guillermo Del Toro’s 2001 horror film, The Devil’s Backbone.
The cinematography by Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Spencer) frames the characters and their surroundings in a soft focus, blending elements from the foreground, mid-ground, and background. This gives the film a surreal, dreamlike quality. The synth-based score by Fatima Al-Quadri elevates the movie to new heights by accentuating certain moments in the film such as the scene where Ada is being taken to her husband’s house.
Mati Diop has a rich cinematic heritage. Her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, a prominent Senegalese filmmaker, directed Touki Bouki (1973), a story about a cowherd and a university student who plan to escape to France. The director mentions that after returning to Dakar in 2008, she came face to face with the refugee crisis and illegal sea crossings which had become common among Senegalese youth. She mentions that the media coverage of the crisis in France where she resided before, treated the cases as abstract, reducing the people to mere statistics.
The repeated shots of the ocean in Atlantics show a different side to it every time. It is a thing of immense beauty but it is also a graveyard, not only of those who tried to cross to Europe in the 21st century but also of the Africans who either jumped or were thrown overboard during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The more things change, the more they stay the same, Diop seems to be saying. Even after all these years since Slavery has been abolished, the African economy is still deep in the clutches of neo-colonialism, our society is structured in a way that we are still being exploited by the West—young people are still perishing in the Atlantic Ocean, trying to escape the crushing presence of corruption on the continent.
Just like the repeated shots of the ocean, Mati Diop also constantly shows the skyscraper in the background, towering over Dakar and its inhabitants. It’s a constant reminder to the audience that this is a symbol of Western exploitation. The filmmakers depict the refugee crisis as a direct result of human cruelty. Diop turns her attention to unchecked capitalism, to the unfair and predatory policies of the Global North and how the lives of ordinary people are affected by them.
If back then, Africans were put in chains and shackles were shipped across the waters against their will, now, centuries later, due to the harsh conditions on the continent created by those same countries and their puppets in political office, young people are willingly abandoning home and fleeing to the West. There’s a twisted irony to the situation and yet the movie invites us not to laugh it off but give it some thought, again and again.
Atlantics screened at Cannes where it won the Grand Prix, the second highest award after the Palme d’Or. It was Senegal’s submission to the Oscars contending for the award for Best International Film and it marked the first time at Cannes that a black woman was in competition for the festival’s highest award. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix.
Atlantics is a story of epic love and loss, framed against the backdrop of a national crisis, as well as the existential questions that plague young adulthood.
During a conversation about the movie, Diop said, “When I started writing the script, I realized that I hadn’t really seen any film with a black couple that was worthy of Romeo and Juliet…and through Ada and Souleiman I wanted to relate a similar kind of tragic love, in the age of rampant capitalism.”
And I daresay she succeeded.