Interviews · Movies

Mati Diop Discusses Her Award-Winning Ghostly Love Story ‘Atlantics’

We spoke with the filmmaker about her Netflix-bound landmark debut feature that stunned at Cannes.
By  · Published on November 16th, 2019

Mati Diop‘s Atlantics has proven to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the film floored me. The incendiary and mesmerizing experience of watching it more than lived up to the high hopes I had after its award-winning debut at Cannes, where Diop made history as the first black female director to have a film in competition.

On the other hand, I was so enchanted, so deeply moved by the film, I forgot to take a single note during the press screening. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the screen for even a second. Thankfully the film left such an impression that recalling it during my conversation with Diop wasn’t a challenge. But Atlantics is a film so enthralling that it’s essentially a fool’s errand to write about it. Where does one begin to translate a film as poetic and startling as this into text?

When I spoke with Diop, we unpacked her debut feature, which expands on ideas from her 2009 short of the same name. The earlier film revolves around a group of Senegalese youth and their plans for migration. In the feature version, Diop follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) but betrothed to another. When Souleiman leaves Dakar, he and his fellow migrants are lost at sea. But the story doesn’t end there. His spirit returns to his homeland intent on finding Ada once again. Atlantics is a story about migration and displacement as much as it is a love story.

It takes a lot of guts to pull off a film this original, but Diop is no stranger to creativity. Her father is famed Senegalese singer Wasis Diop, and she is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty, best known for directing the award-winning drama Touki Bouki in 1973. She’s also an actor as well as a director and notably starred in Claire Denis’ beautifully tender 35 Shots of Rum. Still, Diop has a style that is entirely her own and Atlantics is a fiery debut that tantalizes and stuns. I spoke to her about her inspirations, the film’s “rock ‘n’ roll” attitude, and how its reception has surprised her. Read on for the full conversation.

I saw the short film Atlantics a while ago and loved it, did you always plan to expand it into a feature?

When I shot it, I was in Dakar to prepare another film, Mille Soleils. The short was initially supposed to be a scene within that film, but then when I looked through the images, I found that it was really a film itself. When I shot that sequence at night, around the campfire, it was my first true cinema experience in Dakar. I was young, it was one of my first shooting experiences ever. At the time I was very dedicated to that sequence and to that short, I was very marked by what was going on in Dakar with people leaving the country and risking their lives. What Atlantics the short revealed to me was this way of telling stories that are rooted in reality but also epic and poetic, I think it marked me so much that I felt the need to prolonge my experience with story and to address a feature film to a larger audience, because short films don’t really have the same reach. I wanted this to reach a large audience, that’s why I wanted to make a feature.

This has screened at a number of festivals so I was wondering if there have been any reactions from audiences that have surprised you?

What surprised me the most is that depending on which continent I show this film in, Africa, North America, or Europe, there are specificities in each place, but the feedback is quite similar. I’m surprised to hear a quite common way of reading the story from all the audiences. The language of the film has a universal language that audiences are receiving. It really comforts me. I wanted to write both a specific story and one that addresses a large audience.

I think it also works with so many modes and genres. It’s such a rich film and there are so many ways that people can view it in personal terms. Were there specific sources of inspiration for you?

Most of my inspiration comes from Dakar, from the people. And from my own experiences there. Most of it comes from the reality of life there. It’s rich and multi-dimensional. A lot of it comes from experiencing a place. I also think as a mixed person, I approached this from different cultures. There’s a local element to Dakar, but also the Romantic movement and Gothic literature and art from Europe. It’s a very complex mix of European and African cultures.

Speaking of the Romantic movement, I think there’s something sublime about this film that can’t be put into words. Was it ever a challenge to communicate your vision with collaborators?

I think that through all the shorts I’ve made, the style was already being constructed. For this feature, I still wanted something else. I think this film looks like the shorts I’ve made but there is something different there. It’s my job as a filmmaker to bring people into my vision, but I also chose my collaborators the same way I chose my actors. It’s not only about them doing a good job, but I also need collaborators and actors to bring their creativity to it. It was challenging, but it was a very harmonious team. It’s hard work to make a feature, but I always felt I was working with really good people.

I was particularly struck by the scenes where the spirits of the men return and embody or possess the women. Speaking of your actors, how did you instruct them to act while possessed? 

To be very honest, it’s very strange for me to say this, but I thought I was going to prepare this with so much more precision. In the end, I approached it in quite a raw manner. When the girls are possessed by the spirits, some of them, the main character, that was rehearsed, but the chorus of the girls, when they’re in groups, it was quite unprepared. You never have time to do everything perfectly. The group scenes were quite raw, I was worried about it. I thought it would look like a B-movie. I think in the end the rawness, the aspect of it that’s a little in your face or wild, it gives it a strange touch. The film benefits from having this rock ‘n’ roll attitude. There was a real risk. There were times when I said, “Let’s shoot it and just see how it goes.” It was my first experience as a feature and I was worried. It was very fragile. But I was interested in the fact that it felt like we were taking a risk.

Yeah, it’s a wild film. It’s a ghost story and a love story but also very political. Was it difficult to balance these elements?

There are different layers to the story that were challenging in terms of writing. But I feel that the nature of the film was always about that interaction between different things and dimensions. The point was always about the intermingling. There’s the intermingling of personal and political and of reality and fantasy. It all relates. It has so much to do with my own personality as someone who is mixed. It reflects my relationship to culture and language. I see the world through interminglings. This cinematic language is one that I learned in order to describe my relationship to the world. In this film, I had the need to invent my own language to express myself. It was a liberation to find my own way to express all of this.

Atlantics hits theaters in limited release on November 15th before premiering on Netflix on November 29th. 

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.