The French-Senegalese filmmaker and actor Mati Diop’s first feature film 'Atlantique' tells the story of two types of youth in Senegal -- those who try to make their way to Europe and those who decide to stay behind -- and how the two groups haunt each other and the societies in which they live. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes and is Senegal’s submission to the Academy Awards in the International Film category.
The waves of the Atlantic Ocean roll in on Senegal’s long beaches, the salt spray dancing in shafts of sunlight with sand grains whipped up by the wind. The characters appear wistful in the trailer for Mati Diop’s first feature film, Atlantique (Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story). Their eyes and their smiles tell a different story from their words. Ada and Souleiman are two star-crossed lovers, “a kind of black Romeo and Juliet” says Diop with a smile, in a TV interview on France 24.
Ada is about to marry Omar but she loves Souleiman. Meanwhile Souleiman decides, without telling anyone, to depart for Europe. “They’ve gone, the boys have gone,” says one of Ada’s female friends as they all meet at night on the beach. “They have taken to sea, in a Pirogue [a small fishing boat]”.
A lost generation
Souleiman and his colleagues are construction workers. They haven’t been paid for several months and they make a pact to seek a better life in Europe. In a way, like many young people in Senegal, Souleiman is “haunted by this temptation, haunted by this danger,” Diop says in an interview on the TV channel Arte. “It is very strange, I almost felt like it was a kind of virus,” she continues. “The young men would just vanish from one day to the next without telling anyone about their plans. They only call if they make it to Europe.”
Atlantics was inspired by an earlier short film Diop made in 2009. In it she explores the story of Serigne, another young man who did make it to the Spanish Canary Islands but was repatriated soon after by the Red Cross. “When he was telling me about his experiences, in amongst the facts there were a lot of magical details, fantasy and beliefs. He would tell me about how the young men on board these boats would sometimes throw themselves in to the sea and transform into fish. He also said that although he was speaking to me, in front of a camera, he wasn’t in fact there, that really, he was already dead!”
When they decide to leave, the filmmaker explains, “they already believe themselves to be dead.” All these stories poured into the feature film Atlantics. “I wanted to dedicate the film to this ‘disappeared’ generation,” Diop told Arte.
Characters from real life
The actors were auditioned from the street, says Diop. “I found ‘Souleiman’ on a building site, because I wanted each actor to know more about the socio-cultural background of the character they were playing than I did, so they could really ‘live’ the characters I wrote.”
It’s a film about those who leave and those who stay behind, says the presenter on the TV channel France 24 in an interview with Diop in October 2019. “It was really important to allow the actors who have experienced these things to speak their own truths,” Diop explains in the interview. She found that the reality of the experience, both of those who leave and those who stay behind is not talked about enough in the mass media, particularly of the majority women characters who stay behind.
“From the beginning, the characters have a kind of secret conversation with the Atlantic. […] This immense body of water. […] We speak often about the Mediterranean but the reality is that they have to get past the Atlantic first before they attempt the Mediterranean,” says Diop.
“This film is about haunting,” says Diop. “I wanted to dedicate it to this disappeared young generation, those who disappear in the sea and don’t leave any physical trace. But they are omnipresent, as spirits, in the women who are left behind in the Sahel. So it is a film about these ghosts which are created by ourselves, which are born within us really, who take us back constantly to the past. I heard stories and read things, about whole areas in Dakar which had been deserted by men and were inhabited by women who carried these spirits forward in a way.”
This is a kind of odyssey, Diop says, but not the usual one of Ulysses, but of Penelope who is left behind. Her protagonist Ada (who embodies some of the myths of Penelope, the faithful wife who is supposed to have waited for her husband’s return for 20 long years, repelling all suitors), embarks on her own journey to take control of her destiny. Ada is in love with Souleiman but is being pushed to marry Omar, who is from a "better" family. After Souleiman disappears, she marries Omar but the return of Souleiman in the form of a ghost pushes Ada “to face up to deciding what she really wants from her life, where her destiny will take her.”
About more than migration
For Diop, it was important that the film is not just “squeezed through the lens of migration.” Of course, she says, people are migrating, some die, some make it, but there is a whole other generation of young people who stay behind, who are living their lives, in Senegal, “in all its complexity, and it was those living people who carry the memories of those who have disappeared,” that she wanted to portray.
The reality of migration in Senegal also seems to have changed since Diop generated ideas for the film. The numbers of people trying to migrate from Africa, including from Senegal, have fallen in the past year, Radio France International (RFI) reported last month.
“There are things keeping us here in Senegal too,” says Amath Sarr, the president of Académie Banlieue Culture, a group which organizes conferences and workshops for young people who might be tempted to leave. Talking to RFI, he explains that lots of people who have returned from France are convincing people not to attempt the journey. “Europe has become harder,” Sarr says.
An alternative image of Africa
Another of his friends, Ibrahima Ba, who has a Masters’ degree, agrees. “We have so much potential and resources to exploit here; I really can’t see any reason for wanting to leave. You just need to take into account everything that is enriching here in Senegal,” he says. “I am concentrating on investing here so that I can stay.”
But Sarr and Ba are still in the minority. Florence Kim from the IOM explains to RFI that people are still migrating from West Africa, although it is becoming more difficult to get to Europe. Now, she thinks, “the migratory flows are directed towards countries like Turkey for example.” According to Senegalese national statistics, states RFI, two thirds of those who migrate from Senegal stay within the West African region and do not reach Europe anyway.
The numbers may have decreased slightly from the heights a few years ago, but as someone who moves between Europe and Africa, Mati Diop is keen to portray the complex reality and not just stick to the headlines that surround migration. In an interview with Vulture magazine, Diop says “the film is about the beauty and innocence of love between two 20-year-olds, which is ruined and cut down by economic issues, with Souleiman having to leave by boat for Spain because he’s unpaid and Ada having to marry because of social pressure.” Diop is hoping, through her film, she continues “to reconstruct and repair a certain image of Africa.”
Atlantics will be released on Netflix on November 29
The film opened in French cinemas in October 2019 and in selected US venues on November 15.