BFI LFF 2019: Atlantics (2019)

Atlantics (Atlantiques) is Mati Diop’s dreamlike feature debut focusing on the women left behind when Senegalese migrant workers take to the seas.

Not Waving

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Atlantics‘ debut director Mati Diop (a former actress) comes from Senegalese cinema royalty. Her uncle was the ground-breaking director Djibril Diop Mambety and her father is Wasis Diop, the celebrated musician who composed the scores for many of Mambety’s films.

In fact, whether deliberate or not, Diop’s early scenes in Atlantics are reminiscent of Mambety’s seminal 1973 film Touki Bouki. In both a young couple walk along the Atlantic shore in Dakar. In Touki Bouki it was possible for both to plan and for the young man to take a ship to France. In 2019, he keeps his illicit plan to cross the sea secret from his girlfriend. This is how much the political geography has changed in the intervening 25 years.

Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is the young woman that Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) leaves behind when he and a group of friends set off by unsuitable pirogue one night. The two have been illicit lovers because Ada is betrothed to marry domineering, nouveau rich young man Omar (Babacar Sylla), to the delight of her poorer family. Though she knows nothing about about Souleiman’s disappearance, she is blamed and disgraced by the police (keenly threatening detective Issa (Amadou Mbow), who is prey to a mysterious sickness)) and her furious conventional family. A disastrous wedding goes ahead.

What makes Atlantics so interesting is its focus for the first time on the people – mainly the young women – who are left behind in Africa once the young male would-be migrants have left on their perilous pilgrimage across the sea to Europe. It’s made clear that systemic corruption made life unendurable for them when their wealthy construction boss Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene) chooses not to pay their wages.

Then, halfway, the film takes a turn into the supernatural, as the young women left behind are possessed by the souls of the young men who left and demand their unpaid wages. It’s a strangely unexplained female solidarity, though perhaps there is folklore.

The ocean dominates Atlantics. It’s a presence that’s always there, the camera dwells between scenes on its crashing waves and changing colours. Overall, the palette is murky. The Atlantic Ocean is a more ominous character than mere seaside, as the film proves, bringing both hope and grief.

It’s very timely to pay attention to the migrant crisis that links Africa and Europe and it’s hard not to link this film with Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, which shows the troubled fate that awaits migrants years later if they ever finally make it to France. These are two films, both made by young, black first-time directors that have another gaze and both are must-sees for an understanding of current global political issues.

Atlantics (Atlantiques) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2019, where it won the Grand Prix. It screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 4,5 and 7 October 2019.

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