A Fortnightly Review.
Atlantics (original title: Atlantique)
Written and directed by Mati Diop
1h 46min | Drama | UK release 29 November 2019
By SIMON COLLINGS.
THE FILM DIRECTOR and actor Mati Diop is part-French, part Senegalese. In 2008 she travelled from her home in Paris to Senegal, where her father was born, to make her first film. She had just finished acting for Claire Denis in 35 Shots of Rum and the experience had strengthened her desire to become a filmmaker. The migration crisis in Senegal was at its height, with thousands of mostly young men setting off in small boats to try to reach Europe and a new life. The European media were full of reports about these events. In interviews Diop has described the reporting as statistical, abstract, inhuman, the focus all about economics. In Senegal, through a cousin, she met two young men planning to attempt the hazardous crossing. She was struck by how migration for them meant escaping from a devalued sense of self. The lure of Europe was like a contagious fever.
In the short film Diop made in response to the crisis, a young man, Serique, tells two friends of his experience crossing by sea to Spain. While they sit round a fire, he talks of the feared ‘siram’, waves as tall as buildings, which nearly swamped their pirogue. Some of the passengers, he claims, ‘could turn themselves into fish’. He speaks of the difficulty of saying good bye to those one loves, of the dreams of his mother that filled him with grief. Serique, it appears, was deported as soon as he landed in Europe, though this isn’t directly stated in the film. He says he would make the trip again, in spite of the danger. ‘There’s nothing but dust in my pockets,’ he says. Later in the film we see members of Serique’s family mourning at his graveside. Whether his death is being imagined, or is the result of a second attempted crossing, we do not know. It’s a voyage his friends have tried to dissuade him from making. One of them tells him: ‘Believing in yourself is part of worshipping God in Senegal.’
THE 15-MINUTE FILM, somewhat confusingly entitled Atlantiques, is a work which mixes documentary and fictional styles. A decade later, Diop secured the funding to create a feature-length film with nearly the same title in French – Atlantique (yet Atlantics in the Anglosphere)– but with a very different focus. Diop says that in making the longer film she wanted to avoid reducing the complexity of Senegal to the ‘migration’ issue, and instead to try to dismantle some of the stereotypes and clichés about Africa. The main character in the film, Ada (Mama Sané), is betrothed to a wealthy young businessman called Omar (Babacar Sylla), but is secretly seeing a young man, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), with whom she is in love. He works on a construction site and has not been paid for three months. One evening Ada goes to a bar where they agreed to meet earlier in the day, but discovers that Souleiman and his friends have that evening set out for Europe in a pirogue.
Ada is wracked with grief but goes through with the marriage ceremony to Omar. During the wedding-day celebrations the bridal bed in the couple’s room mysteriously catches fire, and a guest claims to have seen Souleiman at the scene. Arson is suspected and a police investigation starts. Strange things begin to happen. The investigating police officer suffers sudden bouts of fever at dusk, and the girls who frequent the bar become possessed by the spirits of the young men who left in the pirogue with Souleiman. After dark, their eyes blank and luminous, the girls visit the businessman who owed the men their wages and intimidate him into paying over the money. Souleiman does not possess the body of one of the girls, but that of the police inspector. In this form he meets with Ada and the lovers spend the night together. Through the consummation of their passion Ada rediscovers her sense of self, and of a future. The film ends with the defiant affirmation ‘I am Ada’.
Echoes of Diop’s earlier short film are present in Atlantics, for example in Souleiman’s describing to Ada his fatal sea voyage, the ‘waves as big as houses’. But in large part, Diop treats the migration story obliquely. It’s the background to the film, not its central focus. Corrupt labour practices, unemployment, police bribes, and the tensions between an older, socially conservative, generation and the young, dominate the narrative. It is those who remain, and in particular Ada, who take centre stage.
Diop says she was influenced by the student demonstrations against the then president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, in 2011 and 2012. The protests, and the subsequent mobilisation of support for Wade’s challenger, led eventually to a peaceful transfer of power, and the inauguration of a much younger president, Macky Sall.1 Ada’s assertion of her identity, and discovery of a sense of agency, align her with contemporary Senegalese youth seeking to change their country, and shift the story away from Europe. Atlantics won the Grand Prix at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Diop becoming the first female African film director to secure the award.
DIOP COMES FROM an illustrious family. Her father is the well-known Senegalese musician Wasis Diop, and her uncle was the late, great Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. In 2013 she made a documentary about her uncle’s work, Mille Soleils (A Thousand Suns). In interviews she has said that her own approach to filmmaking is very different from Mambéty’s. This is no doubt true, but there is also a sense in which Atlantique can be read as a response to Mambéty’s highly acclaimed first feature Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena) released in 1973.2
The central characters of Touki Bouki are a cowherd Mory and a female student called Anta. They are lovers, frustrated with their limited options in Dakar, and dreaming of escaping to France. In what turns out to be a fantasy, Mory steals clothes from a rich gay man, and the prize money from a wrestling competition, and dressed in flamboyant new outfits the lovers buy tickets on a boat to France.
The film shifts imperceptibly from the reality of life in a poor quartier of Dakar to a world of pure and glorious invention. Only when we return to an image of the couple lying on a cliff top, the same spot where we left them earlier in the film, do we realise this is all in their imagination, and they are in fact going nowhere. The film begins with images of cattle being driven into the city where they are slaughtered, their slashed throats gushing blood. It ends with a repeat of the opening sequence of the cattle being herded, a bleak image devoid of hope.
Diop’s film mirrors the structure of Touki Bouki in the way it also centres on two lovers, and segues part way through from social realism to the fantastical. The European-style clubbing outfits of the girls in the bar, and its make-believe world of coloured disco lights, echo the extravagant dreams of Mory and Anta and their own elaborate costumes. The conflict between the young couple, with their secular, westernised ideals, and an older, more conservative generation (a perennial theme in West African cinema) is also a feature of both stories.
But Diop also offers a counter vision to that of her uncle. In Touki Bouki, Mory and Anta shun a group of students with revolutionary aspirations, but in Atlantics, Souleiman and his workmates challenge the representatives of the construction company over the non-payment of wages, and through the actions of the possessed bar girls they triumph over the unscrupulous business owner. In Touki Bouki, Mory, unable to bring himself to leave, fails to board the boat for France, thereby abandoning Anta. In Atlantique the lovers are united, even beyond death. Mambéty’s film, despite its exuberant and inventive humour, ends bleakly. Diop’s film finishes on a note of defiance, even optimism.
DISTRIBUTION RIGHTS (OUTSIDE of France) for Atlantics were quickly bought by Netflix. Diop initially had mixed feelings about the film being sold to the online entertainment giant. In an interview with Screen Daily in December 2019 she said:
When you’re a director there are lots of reasons to have mixed feelings about Netflix. On one side, we want our films to be seen by as many people as possible. On the other, I sometimes worry it’s all moving too fast and that maybe I’ve betrayed cinema but on the whole the experience has been positive.
On the plus side, Diop has valued the way the Netflix release has connected the film with a wide global audience, saying, in the same interview:
I got a lot of enthusiastic messages on the social networks, especially from the Senegalese diaspora who were so happy to see a film in Wolof [the predominant native language of Senegal] which resembled them, on the platform. It created a sort of event. I didn’t get as many messages when the film was released in cinema theatres in Paris. Also, a lot of the messages were from people who were quite young, who go to the cinema less.
The acquisition of rights to Diop’s film is part of the global streamer’s search for content likely to appeal to its growing audience. Netflix started to go international in 2010 and is now in 190 countries. The company entered the African market in 2016, initially through South Africa. Its main African competitors are iROKOtv in Nigeria and Multichoice in South Africa, but half of iROKOtv’s subscribers are Nigerians living in Europe and North America. Service providers like YouTube and Amazon Prime Video also offer a platform for African films. Online streaming and downloads are the main ways potential viewers now access African films and TV mini-series.
Netflix offers in its library a sizeable selection of entertainment films from the commercially oriented Nigerian film industry (the second largest in the world after India’s Bollywood), as well as films from South Africa. But it has also been acquiring African films of artistic merit. Last year the company streamed I am Not a Witch, the visually arresting debut feature by Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni. That film is no longer available on Netflix but can be viewed in the UK on Amazon.
Reviews of Atlantics have generally welcomed its blending of realism with the magical and supernatural, while at the same time recognising the social critique implicit in the film. The off-beat style of the work, defying easy categorisation in terms of ‘genre’, appears to have worked in its favour. Diop developed her strong personal style through the making of a number of award-winning short films. Some of the devices employed in these earlier works carry over into her first feature. The eerie panoramic shots of the ocean which recur in Atlantics, for example, mirror the repeated images of the alps in Snow Canon (2011), where the mountains represent both mystery and desire. The musical reference in the title Snow Canon reflects the influence of musical form in the way Diop structures her work, including in Atlantics.
Diop’s caution about Netflix is understandable. Personal autonomy is critical to her as an artist. Asked by Tambay Obenson of Indiewire how she would react to an offer from Hollywood, she said she needed ‘guaranteed independence as a writer, as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a person.’ Audience figures versus cost of licensing a film will be major drivers of decisions about which films are retained by Netflix. Like other tech-savvy innovators, the company is increasingly using artificial intelligence programs to help it predict which movies and shows will make money. How long Atlanticcs remains available on Netflix we’ll have to wait and see.
ANOTHER AFRICAN DIRECTOR whose work shares affinities with Diop’s aesthetic is Abderrahmane Sissako. In Waiting for Happiness (Herremakono) released in 2002, he, like Diop, deals with issues of migration and exile indirectly. Abdullah, a student waiting to travel to France, returns to his mother’s house in a small coastal village in Mauritania. In his European clothes he finds it hard to fit in, and he has forgotten the local Hassaniya Arabic dialect. Abdullah is drawn to a woman, Nana, who lives in the house opposite. Talking with her he learns that she has been abandoned by her husband who migrated to France to work.
An elderly fisherman, Maata, is one of those who does not believe in leaving. Declining fish stocks have led him to abandon the sea and he now works as an electrician. The film includes shots of huge fishing trawlers off the coast. Maata tells of an incident in his youth when a close friend came with two airline tickets, and asked him to accompany him to Paris. Maata would not leave, and the friends separated. Where that friend is now he has no idea. His young son Khatra, perhaps the most charismatic character in the film, helps his father in his work and is ambitious to become an electrician himself.
Migrants from other African countries arrive at the village in search of illegal means of crossing to Europe. One of these men has his photograph taken with friends on the eve of his departure for Europe. A few days later his body washes up on the beach. The photographs, wrapped carefully in a plastic bag, are found in his coat pocket.
Through the stories of these different characters, and in other films, Sissako creates a collage of images which pose questions, and highlight personal dilemmas, without offering simple answers. Late in Waiting for Happiness, Abdullah, dressed in slacks, a stylish shirt, and European shoes, tries to climb a sand dune while carrying a small suitcase. The sliding sand fills his shoes, and after a while he abandons the attempt. The image encapsulates both his alienation and his inability to leave.
THE DIVERSITY OF film making across Africa, and the fact that many prominent African filmmakers live outside the continent, make it hard to generalize about current trends. Digital technologies have lowered costs of production, and new channels for distribution have opened up through the internet, creating both possibilities and challenges for filmmakers. The rise of Nollywood is the most obvious result of these shifts, the audience-appeal of its products strongly linked to their reflection of Nigerian social realities. Though predominantly entertainment-led, Nigerian films and TV soaps also engage with local social and political issues of concern to their audience. These are films in which Nigerians recognise themselves and their country.
But alongside these commercially driven developments, it is also possible to identify a continuing tradition of creative, independent filmmaking. In a 2015 paper, the film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo argues that while Nollywood shouldn’t be ignored, ‘there have also been in recent years less spectacular yet significant developments in the auteurist tradition (for a long time the default setting for African cinema) that deserve our full attention.’3
Sanogo is optimistic about the potential for independent, creative filmmaking. He highlights, as an example, the successes of the Moroccan film industry. But he is also fully aware that a great deal depends on both international political and economic factors, and local national circumstances. The African continent, he writes:
remains forcibly positioned at the bottom of the world geopolitical order. Africa is still to a large extent the site of thoroughly uncontrolled extractive and predatory relationships. Continuously instrumentalized and at the mercy of merciless political manipulations, state delegitimization, and economic turpitude it is often used as the ultimate laboratory for all forms of social engineering…In this context, the question of engagement remains crucial to the intellectual, the artist, and thus to the film and media maker.
Sissako is one of the film directors Sanogo sees offering a way forward, describing his practice as a form of ‘prospective engagement’, i.e. the challenging of present realities through creating in fiction possibilities which seem unimaginable. Sissako followed Waiting for Happiness with Bamako (2006), a film in which the World Bank and IMF are tried before a panel of judges in the compound of the director’s family home in the Malian capital, and the “Tiya’s Dream” segment of 8, a film about poverty and hunger. Bamako includes testimony from a young man who, with a group of other migrants, crossed the Sahara only to be turned back at the Algerian border. Some of the group died on the return journey.
Sanogo argues that by staging a ‘legal hearing’, an action which African governments themselves do not have the power to initiate, Sissako, makes such a reckoning imaginable. Sissako reminds us, he says, quoting the French philosopher Alain Badiou, that: ‘engagement is unthinkable outside of definition of some historical objectives. It is at the service of a definable future, not certain, but possible. That is its horizon.’4 Atlantique, in which the ghosts of drowned migrants triumph over a wealthy businessman and the police who are trying to protect him, can be seen as a similar prospective visioning, a horizon.
IN A 2003 interview Sissako talks about the freedom to travel. A British person or a French person who wants to visit Africa can simply get on a plane, he says. But an African person cannot exercise that freedom in reverse. This is the nature of the unequal world we live in. ‘It’s like denying a whole population the desire to travel,’ he says. ‘The desire to travel is part of human nature.’5
Waiting for Happiness includes a moving sequence featuring a Chinese migrant who sings, to the accompaniment of a karaoke screen, a song about exile and the pain of being far from home. The character is based on a person the director met by chance while shooting the film. Sissako says he included this scene because he wanted to show that Africa is not just a place from which people leave, but a place people come to, and where they experience the sadness of exile.
The scene has a parallel in Diop’s short film Big in Vietnam (2012) which centres on a French-Vietnamese film director who abandons the filming of an adaption of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses to wander the streets of Marseille. In a karaoke bar she meets a Vietnamese man who, as they walk along the seafront, tells her of his pain at being separated from his homeland.
As a person of mixed race, Diop lives daily with the internal conflicts generated by the encounters of different cultures. She has described Atlantics as an exploration of the adolescence she might herself have had. The unconventional style of her work is part of the challenge she presents to the viewer, a crucial element of the engagement she offers. ‘The story of humanity is made up of encounters,’ Sissako says in his 2003 interview. ‘No humanity creates itself alone. It’s all been about journeys and encounters.’
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here.
Note: This article was edited after publication to correct the spelling of Aboubakar Sanogo’s surname.
- Wade was seeking a third term as president based on a contested interpretation of the country’s 2001 constitution, which limits a president to two terms. Wade claimed that his first term, served before the new constitution was adopted, didn’t count and he was eligible to stand for a further term. The election of Macky Sall, 35 years younger than Wade, led initially to a sense of renewed optimism among the youth of the country.
- Touki Bouki was included in BBC Culture‘s 100 greatest ever foreign-language films announced in 2018, and named best African film ever made at the 2018 Tarifa-Tangier African Film Festival. A copy of the print was digitally restored in 2008 as an initiative of the Martin Scorsese World Cinema Project. It is available to Criterion’s UK subscribers, with English subtitles, here, and on DVD.
- Aboubakar Sanogo is assistant professor of Film Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. The article referred to appeared in a special focus on African cinema in Cinema Studies 54:2 Winter 2015, University of Texas Press.
- Alain Badiou, ‘L’engagement de Sartre,’ in La nuit Sartre: Table ronde autour de l’héritage de Sartre, June 7, 2013, École Normale Supérieure: Savoirs en MultiMedia.
- Interview conducted by Gavin Whitfield for Ion Productions, available as a bonus item on the DVD of Waiting for Happiness.