In her Cannes-winning film, Mati Diop tells a very human story with a supernatural bent.
Not all ghost stories are about ghosts. The most interesting ones are about people—the spectral presence is merely a memory, there to remind a person of what they've lost, or to help them deal with what remains. This is the deeper meaning of a haunting. Apichatpong Weerasethakul did it well in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and now, Mati Diop has done it with her debut feature, Atlantics.
The film, which garnered the Grand Prix at Cannes this year—something that almost never happens to a first-time director—centers around Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old coming of age in the outlying suburbs of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. In the city, enormous, ostentatious skyscrapers are being erected; young men travel from the impoverished suburbs on rickshaws to give their blood and sweat to this rapid modernization. When, in the first scene of the film, the boys discover that their meager wages are being withheld for the third month in a row, they find themselves in dire straits. What is there left to do in a city wracked by the injustices of extreme greed and inequality?
"The film has always been haunted." -Mati Diop
We find out the answer to that question well after the decision has been made. The boys, along with Ada's boyfriend, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), are gone. They've disappeared into the sea, which has claimed the lives of so many thousands of real-life migrants in search of work. Whether they are dead or not is almost immaterial—to their mothers, sisters, and lovers, they're already ghosts. For Ada, life must go on, and it does, but her longing will produce a phantasm who cannot be forgotten.
No Film School caught up with the French-Senegalese director prior to the film's Netflix release to discuss developing her short of the same name into a feature, how she "haunted" the film, why cinematographers should care about story more than aesthetics, and more.
NFS: Atlantics started as a short. I'm curious to hear how the short developed into the feature.
Mati Diop: After shooting the short, I was very moved by my encounter with the hero of the film and what he shared with me the night I filmed him. He shared his experience of the crossing [the Atlantic ocean] from Senegal to Spain. The summer I shot Atlantics, the short, a lot of young people were also getting in boats to leave their countries. That summer, my vision of the city and the situation of migration really crystallized into something that became the feature version of Atlantics.
I decided to write a longer story about migration. But talking about it as a subject wasn't enough. Because, to me, it's not a subject—it's way more than that. It's really existential. It's internal. So it took me a while to decide how I was going to approach that. I landed on approaching it from the perspective of the people who stayed in their country. Specifically, from the point of view of a woman.
NFS: How did you incorporate the elements of the ghost story into the film's mise-en-scene?
Diop: The ghost dimension was always intertwined with the content of the film. The form and content were united.
While filming the short in Dakar, I met a boy who was, in flesh and bone, in front of me. But he kept telling me that he was not here anymore—that he was already dead. That when you decide to leave, to cross that ocean, it is because you're already dead. It was like the people [who decide to migrate] were already possessed by this unexplainable force of attraction that Europe or America has on these young men. So the ghost elements were inspired by the reality I was observing.
"It was very necessary to have a DP who was able to do a lot with very little means, and who could react to life."
Diop: In terms of how it became a cinematic language, well, the film has always been haunted—by these women, the memory of their lovers, of their brothers, of their friends. The film is about they were experiencing these disappearances.
The spirit of possession is inspired by Muslim djinns. They're a product of our imagination and of the people we love so much. We want to create them so that we can have them back.
I also really liked the erotic dimension of possession. It's like having a fever.
NFS: How did you work with your cinematographer to bring this complex visual language to the film?
Diop: I feel that the feature is, really, a continuation of my visual language [from the short]. It's that, with more means.
I didn't choose Claire [Mathon] to be my DP because I wanted to make a beautiful image. I feel I know enough about what I want and how to make an image happen. For me, in hiring a DP, it's more about their relationship with the story and with the place. That translates into how they want to shoot it. And Claire cares more about understanding the story than making a beautiful image.
"Claire [the DP] cares more about understanding the story than making a beautiful image."
Claire has this very flexible capacity as a DP because she's worked on so many different films, such as documentaries. She's able to interact with life and reality without sacrificing aesthetic ambition. It was very necessary to have a DP who was able to do a lot with very little means, and who could react to life.
When I first took Claire to Dakar, the most important thing was to get her to see it at night. I wanted her to see the light—the way people light their interiors, the way streets are lit. Those things say so much from a place. For example, a lot of lights from China are now arriving in Dakar. That says a lot about the social and economic situation. And, that's why, I think, that the streets of Dakar, at night, always made me think of Asian movies. The intensity and the temperature of the lights are actually both imported by China.
I was also excited to introduce Claire to the complexity of the place. It's one thing to appreciate the beauty of modernity. It's another thing to be able to depict it through imagery and light.
NFS: What was the transition was like from short to feature director?
Diop: It's much the same thing, just on a much bigger scale.
It took me way longer to write and cast the film. The writing was definitely the most challenging part for me because I'm a visual artist. My first tool is the camera. The camera is my first language for everything. Writing comes after. Building structural and narrative stories comes after. So, the writing process was quite challenging.
I also found it very hard to have so little time to direct the scenes while I was shooting. Of course, these were scenes that I've been dreaming of, and crystallizing, for so many years. It was so harsh to only have three hours to finally make them exist!
In general, on a feature, everything is just more constrained.
Also, you have so many more people. You have an army to drive. It's very challenging. But I could talk about the challenges for hours—this is my first feature, after all.