The French-Senegalese director's Cannes-winning Atlantics removes barriers between fantasy and reality to create a complex portrait of African youth
Mati Diop creates films to make people who are invisible to society exist on screen.
“All I can tell you is that I’m trying to make films that I’d love to see, that I need to see,” the Paris-based director tells NOW during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. She needs to see strong, vulnerable, multifaceted and self-determined Black characters because she’s tired of “the monopoly of white characters in cinema. I really wanted to propose something different – of a person who represents me.
“I needed to make Africa exist on screens again,” she adds.
The French-Senegalese filmmaker and actor is having a buzzy year. The first Black woman director to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, she won the Grand Prix award for her debut feature, Atlantics. In September, she received the inaugural Mary Pickford Award, which recognizes emerging female talent in the film industry, at the TIFF Tribute Gala.
Diop has made shorts and documentaries for 15 years, most notably A Thousand Suns (2013), Big In Vietnam (2012) and Atlantiques (2009), which all screened at TIFF.
Atlantics is an “intuitive continuation” of her earlier work, she says, and feels like part of “one same gesture.” Her feature debut pulled directly from Atlantiques, about men who make the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to Europe from Dakar in a pirogue with the hope of better prospects. “The issue in Atlantiques was to give the story back to the men, and in Atlantics it was to get the point of view of the women who stay,” she explains.
Born in Paris, Diop’s work regularly explores the plight of Senegalese youth. A Thousand Suns, which screened as part of a Claire Dénis retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2013 (Diop starred in Dénis’s 35 Shots Of Rum), is a dialogue between the Senegalese youth of Diop’s generation and the generation of her uncle, acclaimed director Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose 1973 film Touki Bouki is an African cinema landmark.
When she went to Dakar to prep for Atlantiques, she felt a darker, more all-encompassing force behind people’s desire to migrate than she had in the past. The men wanted to leave for pragmatic reasons, such as unemployment, but also seemed obsessed with the seductive magnetism of European culture more broadly.
“I could really feel that they felt their lives would have more value if they were there,” she says. “And I couldn’t help wondering if it was not one of the consequences of colonialism to see so many young, Black men wishing so much to be in Europe.”
Courtesy of Netflix
Mame Bineta Sane plays a woman haunted by the disappearance of her lover at sea in Atlantics.
Diop says Atlantiques was made urgently to give the migrants agency over their own stories.
“At the time, most of the mass media covered [migration] without giving any existential or individual dimension to the phenomenon.”
A decade later, the issues she contended with in the short remain at the forefront of Atlantics: The world is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is political, economic and, increasingly, ecological.
She’s glad Atlantics, which Netflix acquired at Cannes, still contains her personal and unique language – raw, not overly polished visuals and a non-voyeuristic Western lens on Senegal – because she was wary of losing control after shifting from shorts to feature-length, which comes with greater expectations.
Atlantics feels like a singular take on a migrant story. We never see the men leave, but witness how their absences and subsequent deaths affect the women left behind. They leave because their wealthy employer is withholding three months’ worth of wages and there aren’t many other job options. Midway through the film, Atlantics takes a supernatural turn. Diop’s inspiration for these haunting events came from old Breton legends of sailors drowning and coming back to haunt villages as well as Muslin djinns. The supernatural element may be fantastical to Western audiences but according to Diop, there is no rigid line between reality and fantasy in Senegal.
“You don’t make a fantasy film in Africa,” she says. “Fantasy is part of reality. Western culture puts a very strong border between visible, invisible, irrational, rational. I try, as a French-African person, not to apprehend Africa from the prism of my Western culture. And so it was interesting as a filmmaker to deconstruct that and to propose a film where fantasy and reality are intertwined.”
Diop believes the film’s positive reception is influenced by all the recent intersectional activist work by women and Black people around the world.
Following Cannes, the media coverage around Diop’s nomination and win was quite superlative, turning her into the poster woman for Black women in cinema. How does she feel about that?
“When you become a public figure, you have to accept that your image doesn’t really belong to you anymore,” she says, adding that she doesn’t necessarily want to be celebrated because she’s a Black woman filmmaker but rather because her films resonate with people.
“If young Black women want to consider me as a Black woman making cinema and somebody who encourages them then I’m happy and proud to be able to do that – like an older sister,” she says. “But I want them to be encouraged by my film, not just by me being Black.”