Atlantique won the Sutherland Award for ‘Best First Feature’ at LFF 2019. This follows the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier in the year. Although the film is now held by Netflix it will appear at the Leeds International Film Festival in November and maybe others as well. Netflix has announced plans to distribute films through independent cinemas in the UK so I hope many of you will see this film as it is meant to be seen on a big screen. It’s arguably the highest profile African film for some time and it’s great that it lives up to its billing.
Writer-director Mati Diop is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty. I mention this not to diminish Ms Diop, who has already produced five celebrated short and medium-length films to add to her acting career, but to underline her achievement in picking up the baton and linking Senegal’s celebrated cinematic past with the vibrancy of its contemporary popular culture and political struggles. I could see elements of her film possibly drawing on the work of Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (Senegal 1975) with disadvantaged people invading the house of a corrupt business man and also elements of her uncle’s film Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973) (which was also the subject of her short film Mille soleils (France 2013)). Atlantique is a development of an earlier Mati Diop short film Atlantiques (2009). That short addressed the recent stories of young Senegalese attempting dangerous sea crossings to the nearest EU port. Those sea crossings are also an offscreen element of this new feature, which also ties in with both migration films such as La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012) and films which tap into the supernatural in African narratives such as War Witch (Canada 2012).
Atlantique begins with workers on a new building project in a district of Dakar. When they discover that yet again there is no prospect of getting paid this week they protest loudly but eventually return to their homes outside the city. With no income for their families a group of the younger men decide that attempting a dangerous sea crossing to the Canaries, the nearest EU territory, offers their only chance of finding work and money. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), says goodbye to his teenage girlfriend Ada (Mama Sané). Deeply in love with her young man, Ada faces an arranged marriage to an older man with little chance of escape. Her family want her to marry as the man is wealthy and imports goods from Europe. But as the wedding begins a few days later, a fire breaks out, halting the proceedings. A new detective at the local police station comes to begin an investigation and Ada seeks out the support of her girlfriends and in particular Dior (Nicole Sougou) who runs a bar on the sea front. More fires start in the area and some people begin to feel ill, including the detective. I won’t spoil any more of the plot. Instead I’ll refer to the Press Pack and what Mati Diop says about her film.
Ms Diop grew up in France and she says that her film in some ways refers to the adolescence in Senegal that she never had. She also stresses that the film is a romance and that apart from her uncle’s film she can’t think of many other romances between young African people. But though the romance is very important, there are other things going on here. The film’s tagline is a ‘ghost love story’. Diop explains that the building site featured at the beginning of the film is part of a new up-market development on the edge of Dakar. This is real, but the imposing tower seen in several shots is a CGI rendering resembling what was planned by the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade. This fantasy element is then followed up by the fires that begin spontaneously, the sickness and the young women who appear possessed. The inference is clear. The corruption of the neo-colonialists who prey upon the people has been met by something akin to a ‘popular will’ expressed in spiritual terms. There are some factors here that I couldn’t quite work out on a first viewing. For instance, the new police detective is young, seemingly smart and not tainted by the corruption. But he gets sick as well. Is he another metaphorical character, representative of how young professionals might be seduced by a corrupt system? He does also represent a familiar figure, the ‘modernised’ man asked to investigate a crime involving a traditional social ritual
The look and the sound of the film are very important and Mati Diop chose to work with two women who added a great deal to the impact of the film (I should also note that she co-wrote the film with Olivier Demangel). Here is the director on Fatima Al Qadiri’s music:
I knew that the soundtrack was going to have to be responsible for the film’s invisible component – everything that is present, but that we don’t see, that we can’t film. The world of spirits. The film takes place in a world where the fantastic is embodied and emerges within the characters themselves before entering reality.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon has a strong documentary background and it was this that attracted Mati Diop as well as her experience on features:
I knew that she would know how to apply a documentary approach (to shoot quickly, catch things on the fly, spontaneously invent things) without losing any aesthetic ambition.
The actors in the film are mainly non-professionals who took part in workshops with Diop and one of the few veteran actors in the cast before shooting began. I hope you can get a sense of camera, sound and performances from the trailer: