Review: Atlantics

19 December 2019

French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop’s feature film debut, Atlantics, is a sensitively crafted, dream-like journey haunted by the desire for freedom.

Atlantics brings Western viewers into a world they likely only ever experience through coldly distanced news reporting, which has played a large role in perpetuating ignorant perceptions of Africa as a culturally homogeneous continent characterised by conflict. In reply to this, Diop reframes the lives of her characters through an individualised and subjective lens. At the film’s centre is Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman living in the Senegalese capital whose secret love, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), is one of a group of construction workers who have been without pay for three months. They are working on a huge, futuristic tower on the coast of Dakar, intended for visitors vastly wealthier than themselves. The film begins with these workers demanding they be paid for their work, but are told that their boss, Mr. Ndiaye, has gone away on a business trip and hasn’t left the money.

Faced with little choice, Souleiman and the other workers are forced to leave Dakar, setting off on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain in the hopes of finding a brighter future—a route which was taken by many young Senegalese men in the mid-2000s. But Souleiman is not the only one who yearns to escape: while the uneven globalisation of Dakar has resulted in his degradation to an object of exploitation for capital, Ada is also trapped by the rigid and demeaning gender roles of patriarchy, and it is with her that we stay after Souleiman’s departure. She is engaged to Omar (Babacar Sylla), a rich man whom she does not love, and whose family values her only on the basis of her virginity. In Souleiman’s absence, Ada is devastated and seemingly without direction. When Ada’s bed is torched on the night of her wedding to Omar, a young police investigator, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is convinced that Souleiman may be back in Dakar. Soon, a ghostly supernatural element is brought in, which tastefully serves the political commentary and thematically builds upon the film’s gothic visual language.

Atlantics gained attention when it became the first ever film directed by a black woman selected to compete for the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. The film was subsequently beaten by Bong Joon-ho’s thrilling class commentary, Parasite, but took home the Grand Prix, which is awarded each year by the festival’s jury.

Despite Atlantics’ position as Diop’s debut feature, she is no beginner when it comes to filmmaking, having been involved with the craft for over a decade as an actor, writer and director. Diop has directed an astonishingly diverse range of short films, from Snow Canon (2011), which explores the burgeoning desires of a teenager for her babysitter, to the documentary A Thousand Suns (2013) about Magaye Niang, the lead actor in her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty’s seminal Senegalese film Touki Bouki (1973). With an already substantial body of work, Diop has shown herself to be a unique and talented creative voice. Atlantics is something of a fictional expansion of her documentary short, Atlantique (2009), which used lo-fi aesthetics to capture young Senegalese men voicing their dreams and fears about their futures; their situations mirroring that of Souleiman and the construction workers of Atlantics.

Diop lets intuition and feeling guide her choice of image and composition in a style reminiscent of the wordless visceral intimacy of the films of her former collaborator Claire Denis. (Diop met Denis while at film school, and in 2008 gave a sublime starring performance in Denis’ film 35 Shots of Rum.) Diop’s images are at once beautifully lyrical and documentary-like in their spontaneity, elevating them to an almost cerebral realm. Shots like the Atlantic Ocean bathed in the light of an orange sunset, and a burned mattress with its charred surface exposing the wire springs underneath, feel conjured from the innermost unspoken feelings of the characters themselves. This allows a viewer to respond to the images emotionally and subconsciously rather than intellectually, to feel images beyond what they literally depict. In a similar vein, Atlantics’ score, composed by Kuwaiti electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri, is less melodically oriented than one of low-pitched, moody walls of sound.

Diop is not afraid to let her camera linger, especially on faces, or on the sun as it dips beneath the ocean’s horizon. The people on screen are brimming with fear, sadness, anger, and loss, the vividness of its communication made possible by sensitive and layered performances from the film’s largely non-professional cast. Light, both artificial and natural, illuminates the contours of facial features, and the turbulence of the ever-present ocean.

In a time when migrants and refugees are confronted with more hatred and rejection than ever, the existence of films which humanise the experience are essential. But Atlantics does much more than simply put forward an empathetic portrayal of refugees and the people which they leave behind; the characters exist not just for a Western gaze but are distinct in and of their own stories and place. The film makes bold thematic and stylistic decisions, smoothly incorporating elements of genre and the fantastical which feel determined exclusively by the needs of the artwork itself. Atlantics has served as a deserving breakout work for Mati Diop, a singular filmmaker with a promising future ahead.

Atlantics is now streaming on Netflix.

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