The Arab Spring events of 2011 got filmmaker Mati Diop thinking: What if that search for a better life were told from the viewpoint of a teenage girl in Senegal who stayed behind as her sweetheart crossed the seas in search of new opportunity?
“We could say the film is following the ‘spring’ of a young woman in terms of the season from… dark to light, and it’s like an openness blooming,” said Diop. “And it’s the story of this metamorphosis of Ada while the boys of her neighborhood disappear.”
In “Atlantics,” opening in select theaters on Friday, young Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) watches tearfully as her love Souleiman (Traore) leaves behind their Senegalese seeking work in Europe. But Souleiman and his boatmates never arrive, which commences a voyage of discovery for Ada and her community as they seek answers.
“None of the lead actors of the film were actors before I chose them,” said Diop, a native of Paris, adding that it took her the better part of a year to find her Ada. “I was really looking for someone extremely special, complex and singular.”
Senegal’s history includes colonization by France, which Dior—who is Parisian—said remains the language of business and government in Senegal today. The language spoken by the characters in “Atlantics” is called Wolof, with a sprinkling of French at the levels of government.
“Senegal is definitely crossed by so many influences. First Islam, then France, then obviously American and Dubai and now China,” she said.
Dior made an earlier film, called “Atlantiques,” in 2009, with a similar story involving young people emigrating from Senegal to Spain. But that shorter film was a decade and a world removed from what she was aiming to capture in the new “Atlantics.” The new film reflects some of the failed promises of the 2011 Arab Spring that spread throughout much of the Middle East and parts of Africa.
“I wanted the film to hold a dynamic [of how] the disappeared youth [affect] the living,” she said.
On that score, “Atlantics” also has a supernatural element. Not long after Souleiman and the rest of his boatmates disappear, people around Ada back in Dakar begin to take sick with a mysterious illness. Things get more complicated when Ada, who has been promised by her family to a much older man, is visited by a young police inspector after a fire breaks out on the night of her wedding for unknown reasons.
Could it be the spirits of Souleiman and the others on the boat exacting some type of revenge?
“People don’t put a border between [the] visible and invisible, life and death,” Diop said of the African and Senagalese cultures that form the backdrop for Ada’s story. “In my film the investigators think [strange things happen due to] a djinn (a spirit) because that’s what it looks like from the perspective of a Senagalese person. But little by little we understand that it’s not about djinns, it’s about the spirits of the boys.”
“Atlantics” becomes a strangely unnerving hybrid of societal commentary and ghost story, with Diop applying some of the familiar tropes of horror movies to better explain to audiences the cultural heritages and fears of Senegal to audiences worldwide.
“I worked on it so it could be absolutely receivable by any audience. It was also [that] I was addressing myself to a Senegalese audience,” Diop said. “The film is as much influenced by local culture as by a certain gothic romantic element of literature or painting.”
This includes Diop bringing to the mix her own recollections of tales of lost “boat people” that she heard growing up in France.
Diop said she also had to tread carefully in the film’s frank depictions of lovemaking within a conservative Muslim culture, such as that in Senegal.
“We were all a bit concerned that audiences in Senegal would not react very well, but in the end, there was not any problem,” she said, adding that the way she staged a crucial love scene was “very discreet.”
“It never became a [an issue], which I think was a very important step,” she said.
“Atlantics” won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Diop became the first black female director to be in competition for the highest prize of the vaunted confab, the Palme d’Or. Part of this, she believes, was due to staying true to her own vision and shooting the film where and how she wished.
“It’s hard to measure the importance of a prize like that for a first feature [but] now I have a little more distance,” Diop said. “It’s my first feature. My [team] are mostly women and that is a great sign that author-engaged cinema can be shown on Netflix, and that a film shot in Africa in Wolof can go there.
“It’s good for me, but it also is a sign of change. I think it’s great.”
“Atlantics” premieres in select theaters Friday and debuts on Netflix on November 29th.