Director: Mati Diop
Stars: Mame Bineta Sane, Amadou Mbow, Nicole Sougou
The Senegalese peninsular city of Dakar is one of West Africa’s extremities, reaching out to the Atlantic. The city itself is eager to broaden its appeal to the developed world. In this earnest endeavour, disparities between rich and poor are ripe for observation, and Mati Diop’s bewitching debut pries into this micro-climate. It’s a love story. A ghost story. A tale of justice. Diop found herself in competition at Cannes with her film, marking a new (belated) first for African cinema.
Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is due to be wed to the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla) – an arranged affair for which she has little enthusiasm. Her heart is elsewhere as she is in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore); a construction worker owed four months’ pay by unfeeling bosses. The huge Muejiza Tower dominates the Dakar coastline, like an alien craft has landed – making the city’s progression toward a more Westernised, capitalist milieu feel as much like a threat of invasion as a beacon of promise.
Desperate for money to provide for their families, Souleiman and his colleagues depart on a boat to Spain, leaving their girlfriends drowning their sorrows at the local night spot. Ada’s wedding night arrives with a procession of taxis that snake through the suburbs like some mystical serpent. The score befits Ada’s mood; suggesting some dark ceremony rather than a cause for celebration. It also prefigures the film’s upcoming swerve into slipperier, more spiritual territory. The marital bed catches fire – seemingly without cause – and arson investigator Issa Diop (Amadou Mbow) is brought in to solve the mystery. Rumours abound that Souleiman is back…
The rolling waves of the ocean present a persistent metaphor for the sea of troubles befalling the circle of characters at the centre of Diop’s film. Atlantics has a hushed poetry to it. Diop is contemplative, letting time into her frame. Textures, fabrics and the play of wind currents are as important as narrative progression. The balminess of this city by the sea is evoked in the picture; a restlessness where sorrow is almost expected.
This fatalism presents itself through a number of foreshadowing moments that speak of a cloud of inevitability hanging over the city. Ada has nightmares of Souleiman’s body washing up on the shore, and grows depressed. Issa is already sick, even before he embarks on his investigation, prefiguring a ghostly delirium which will take a hold of him as things progress. Before a mid-film genre swerve takes us into the defiantly supernatural, Diop’s film fills with ghosts. When the men go to sea, we take a tour of their empty rooms. Objects as remnants. At her wedding, Ada is veiled; barely present. A ghost in her own celebration.
These things communicate to the audience the ‘surprises’ ahead. Diop isn’t interested in twists or shocks. Her story is there to be understood and even supposed. We are invited to get there before she does. In that respect, Atlantics feels like a campfire story, and its thematic staples of love and justice are befitting of this great aural tradition. The film is open, airy, but pregnant with this mood of mysticism and the power of the witching hour. It might work wonderfully in a double bill with Bertrand Bonello’s recent Haitian zombie piece Zombi Child – both films take elements of traditional horror and supernatural storytelling and use them to delicate, ethereal effect. They feel modern in the process.
This sense of the current fits in with Dakar’s suspension between worlds, sinews pulled tight as it stands in one place and reaches toward another.