First-time feature director Mati Diop made headlines in May (including on this very website) for making history. When her film Atlantics won the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix award (“effectively second prize,” says A.O. Scott), she became the first black woman ever to win at the festival in its 72-year history. In fact, Atlantics was the first film by a black woman to screen in competition ever at the festival.
For Diop, it was a mixed blessing. While she was proud of the honor, she told Jezebel in October, while in New York to promote her film, “Cannes is not a place where you have long and involved conversations. It really becomes about what you represent more than your film and how it was written, how it was directed. I kind of accept that very reductive approach to me.”
Reductive is one thing Diop’s film is not. In turn a romance, a procedural, a ghost story, and an indictment of patriarchy, Atlantics pulses with thrilling multivalence and pragmatic aesthetic sensibility. Diop, who was born in Paris, shot the film in Senegal, where some of her family is from (her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty is a well-known Senegalese filmmaker). The basic premise—Senegalese laborers who haven’t been paid by their corrupt land baron boss for months set sail for Spain in search of jobs and a better life—was based on a true account Diop heard from one such worker. With the tide goes Souleiman (Traore), the boyfriend of Atlantics protagonist Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who’s heading into an arranged marriage with a man she doesn’t love, Omar (Babacar Sylla). Souleiman and his coworkers never return from their voyage and are presumed dead. Until.
Diop’s work is exciting, and she speaks about it with great engagement. She had a lot to say about her work and the public’s perception of it. She also has a sense of humor about her work, despite its heaviness—when I pointed out that Atlantics’ frequent transitional shots of the sun blazing on the ocean surprised me for being so arresting in their simplicity, she chirped, “Clichés are inexhaustible!” Her first language is French, and she spoke with the sporadic help of a translator (a word here, a phrase there). Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.
JEZEBEL: What was your immediate reaction to winning at Cannes, and now that some time is passed, what do you think of it today?
MATI DIOP: When I found out that the film was in competition, I was still editing it. The first thing I thought about was that I was shocked and amazed with a first feature as a filmmaker to go there. I was also a little skeptical. Even if you want to trust the programmers of a festival, you know that being in competition is always a mix of good and bad reasons. Good reasons, meaning for the film only, and bad reasons meaning what you represent. It was mixed feelings. It’s only when I found out in the newspaper that I realized that I was the first black woman. I don’t necessarily think about the fact that I’m nonwhite every day when I wake up. It’s strange, but when I saw it written down, I was like, “Fuck, it’s true, it’s me. I’m the first black woman.” It’s a reminder that it never happened and we are in 2019. It’s incredible, but it’s actually a fact.
It took up a lot of space at Cannes, but I was not really disturbed by it because I know that Cannes is not a place where you have long and involved conversations. It really becomes about what you represent more than your film and how it was written, how it was directed. I kind of accept that very reductive approach to me. I went to Cannes ready to be reduced to a woman, to a black woman. I think there is worse in the world to face as an experience. I was still very happy that the film was liked and that it was going to reach a much larger audience. And you know, I had some white friends telling me, “I’m so pissed that they focused on that.” On one hand, it is a big deal. It has never happened before so it’s obviously going to be an event, and then you get aware that you might become a reference, an inspiration maybe for nonwhite directors, which is very beautiful—to be able to inspire other people. But then at the same time, I was like, “I don’t want people to be inspired just because I’m black. I want people to be inspired by the film.”
So it all happened very fast, and I have a hard time being reduced to anything. All my cinema is built against shortcuts. Suddenly you become a huge cliché… I mean, you know, it’s how things work.
Did all of the focus on your identity ever feel like a burden?
This is one of the many burdens I could feel. Being the niece of [Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty], being a good-looking actress. There are so many reasons to feel like you shouldn’t be there and that there was a mistake. Rational, irrational. Hopefully, this light on me arrives at a moment where I know where I come from, I know how much work it took me to be there, and mostly how important it was for me to make that film. So this is so much stronger than anything that people can project on me. I’m lucky enough that the light on me and the film arrive at a moment where I’m able to detach myself from what I represent and who I am, and also I know my film stands for itself. It’s affirmed and clear enough in terms of position to clarify anything for me. That’s what’s most important because I’m a director.
How did you conceive the movie?
It took me years. It went through different classical stages: writing, preparing, directing, editing. It all begins with a short film I directed in 2009 called Atlantiques, which is very defined by a political, economical moment where a lot of young people were migrating from Dakar to Spain in search of a better future, escaping unemployment. This is a very rational, concrete situation, but I decided to depict it in a more sensitive and also poetic, mythical approach. I was close enough to some people there, and my relationship with the situation was also special, so I was able to light that situation from within, embodied by a young man who shared his experience of the crossing to me and his two best friends. So through this young man, Serigne, I made this film to approach this situation in a very sensitive and intimate way. I felt it was needed for these stories to be heard by those who experience it.
The encounter with Serigne, the hero of the film, and all the things I’d been observing at the time marked me enough to a couple of years later write Atlantics the feature, which talks about the same situation with a very different point of view—not from a man who experienced the crossing, but from a woman who stayed. It’s very influenced by the archetype of Ulysses and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey. The idea this time was to write the Odyssey of Penelope, the odyssey of a woman who experiences the disappearance and loss of her lover. The idea was to write a rite of passage from a young woman taking between the disappearance of her lover and his coming back as a ghost. I pictured the film as a survival movie. You know, when you see Ada at the end looking at herself in the mirror and being able to say her name. For me, it’s a rebirth: Ada becoming who she is and being safe from the life she was about to take, which was a not hers, but a life dictated by social pressure.
One of the movie’s most impressive feats is its exploration of the varying political ramifications of an oppressive society depending on the populations: You have the unpaid workers, the women, and Ada has her own unique experience, too.
It was very challenging in terms of writing to circulate from one reality to another, from a class to another, but at the same time, linking all these realities and problems together in one, felt also very natural to me. It’s just simply the way I look at things and understand them.
How typical, if it’s even possible to make this assessment, is Ada’s experience in terms of that of a woman in Senegalese society?
What she’s going through, her arranged marriage and the compromise she makes with her own life, as well as the innocent aspect of her and the very strategic one… the pressure that she is subjected to is definitely representative. Also, the way she looks and her attitude. I think what’s interesting and challenging in terms of writing, casting, and directing characters is that it, of course, has to embody very concrete and precise social situations. But at the same time, she has to be—and this is why I chose her—absolutely unique as a human being. I would say it’s both. She’s very emblematic and doesn’t look like anybody I’ve met. That’s why it took me seven months to find [Mame Bineta Sane, who plays Ada]. In Dakar, 60 percent of the population is young. So, before starting the casting, I thought I was going to have too much choice, that it was going to be super hard to control the people coming into the casting. But it was the country, and it was quite hard to find them. The world tends to be standardizing itself. Everybody looks like everybody. To find a very, very, very specific unique girl wasn’t easy.
How did you do it?
I found her when I was not looking for her anymore. I found all the other actors before her, and the day I found her I was scouting. It was in Thiaroye, the neighborhood where the film takes place. I was scouting with my set designer and my right-hand assistant. We were walking around to look for a house of one of the characters and I saw a girl coming out of her house and going back in like she had forgotten something. And voilà. I immediately thought she had something. She was really close to the age that I was looking for, right between childhood and being a woman. I went back with one of my assistants to talk to her, because I don’t speak Wolof and she doesn’t speak French. It started there.
How were you able to direct a movie that contains so much Wolof without speaking it?
I write my dialogue in French, and then I got it translated, and, you know, as Senegal was previously colonized by France, most people speak French also. The only person who was not speaking French at all was the lead actress. But it’s very fluid, Wolof and French. It’s really not an obstacle at all for me. I’ve heard this language since I was a kid. Even though I don’t speak it, I’m very familiar with it. It’s like music I know by heart without knowing how to talk. The back and forth between my actors and me is very easy. When they speak I know what they say because we translated the dialogue I wrote together. When I want to talk to an actor, whether I talk in French, whether I ask another actor to talk to [Sane], whether I ask my assistant, it makes everybody very engaged. It gives everyone a share of responsibility.
Given the situation for women socially in Senegal, was it difficult to shoot there?
Being a woman, shooting in this country is at the same time easier and more difficult. Easier because you benefit from condescension. [Laughs] No, I’m joking, but you know what I mean. Sometimes it was a bit difficult for some members of the crew to be directed by not only me as a director, but also two producers who are even younger than I. It was a lot: Me as a director, the producers who are women, the DP [Claire Mathon] is a woman. It was like, “Wait.” It was very demanding for most of the men there. We didn’t have any problems, but you could feel sometimes that it was a lot for them to take.
That’s probably a good thing.
Yeah. But on the other hand, Senegal is a place with a lot of very, very strong women characters. There are a lot of strong personalities there. It’s not as monolithic as we imagine. I was happy that the young actors were experiencing that: Ada was directed by a young woman and filmed by a woman DP. I think that for young female directors in Senegal, it’s important for them to see that people can go there.
But no, I didn’t find it hard to shoot in Senegal. Even Senegalese people thought it would be hard in general to shoot in the suburbs of Dakar and thought I was crazy to accumulate all sorts of difficulties in one feature: nonprofessional actors, the suburbs, the fact that I wasn’t speaking Wolof, the crazy amount of scenes. But in the end—and I try not to make generalities on countries and people—I found Senegalese people were cooperative. To give you an example, the police station where we shot, I really wanted [Amadou Mbowbe, who plays an investigator] immersed in real situations so I really took him to the police station, and we were able to ask 1,000 questions to real investigators, and they gave us so much information. They really were at the service of the film. They even had my actor interview real thieves, which was incredible for him.
I think it was really… not easy because this film was anything but easy, but the people and the crew and the Senegalese really gave a lot for the film to happen. I felt supported by the country.
Atlantics is now streaming on Netflix.