Interview: Mati Diop on Turning the Tide in “Atlantics”

Before Souleymane (Ibrahima Traoré) can leave Dakar in “Atlantics,” it feels as if he’s already gone, his mind wandering to the nearby sea as he leaves construction site where the paychecks haven’t come for weeks and the prospect of crossing the water to pursue better opportunities has become less scary than if he remains. He’d be gone already, if it weren’t for Ada (Mame Sane), one of the local girls who’s been promised to another by her family, and as the wedding day approaches, there’s less and less reason to stay, a departure that has become so commonplace in Senegal that it should be felt like a drop in the ocean, yet becomes the foundation for a tidal wave in Mati Diop’s extraordinary feature debut.

Although Diop has a remarkable feel for what’s in front of her camera, it’s what’s not there that looms larger and larger throughout “Atlantics,” as any aspirations of having a different life than their parents are easily crushed under the weight of adhering to tradition and socioeconomic realities that were established well before the current generation ever had a chance. The constant stirring of the ocean, the neon lights that pierce the Dakar’s skyline and the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the impending nuptials all give the sense of a pulse, but the soul escapes once Ada and Souleymane part ways, a notion that the filmmaker pushes in intriguing ways in the drama that takes on supernatural overtones as it develops, leaving both Ada and Issa (Amadou Mbow), a detective assigned to investigate a fire that breaks out during her wedding, to chase ghosts of different kinds.

With elusive, dreamy cinematography from Claire Mathon and lively, versatile score from Fatima Al Qadiri that always keeps in tune with Ada, finding the beauty within her even as unharmonious as her life becomes, “Atlantics” proves to be indescribably moving, wrapping itself around you in ways you can feel yet can’t put your finger on, and while it is Diop’s first feature, it is the product of years of preparation from shorts previously exploring issues of migration and exile such as her 2009 nonfiction piece that shares the same name and 2013’s “A Thousand Suns” and an acting career that began in Claire Denis’ 2008 film “35 Shots of Rum.” Recently, the film was shortlisted as one of the 10 finalists for this year’s Best International Feature at the Academy Awards and earlier this fall, Diop was kind enough to share a few details about creating such an indelible and lingering cinematic experience.

I know you’ve spoken about a lost generation in Senegal. Did this really develop around one or two central characters or were you thinking about this in terms of a group dynamic from the start?

What’s interesting is that actually at the very beginning of the thinking about the feature, it was mostly about a group of boys and I wanted to talk about the boys leaving until the moment where I felt that it had to be told from the people who are watching these boys disappear and who experience their disappearance and their loss, so then it had to be from the point of view of women. But it’s interesting question because I think it took me a while to abandon or give up [that idea] that it should be a group, but one single person. It was something I was really interested by, but the more and more we advanced on the script process with my co-writer, the more we understood that it was really important to go back to one single character in the middle, in relationship to her lover, surrounded by a chorus of girls so at the end, I still had my main character, but the group really remains in the film.

I understand you wrote a first draft and then went to Dakar – what was that time like for you?

The first draft took really a very long time. Most of the work happened before that first draft and before that first draft, I really resisted the idea of writing in Dakar because I wanted to keep a lot of distance. I had enough experience and information about my subjects and the reality over there that I did not need to go there and I really wanted the film to be a very universal tale. But after a first version of the script, I went there mostly for the dialogue because I wanted the dialogue to be [current] with the way girls talk today, so it was both a confirmation of that, but also a way to really get inspired by conversations that I had — I did a casting of a young women by proposing to see and to talk about men, religion, marriage, sex, money, independence and to see what they had to say about that. I was going through very different profiles of girls to explore what their mind was made of, to learn more about the different kind of archetypes of girls today there and a lot of them confirmed that my intuitions were right. Of course, I learned a lot of new things I didn’t know and it definitely was a way to continue to build based on the conversations I had.

You’ve said you need actors who know the characters better than you do – are there ways they surprise you?

Yeah, when I say that, I talk more about the fact that for example, [Nicole Sougou] the actress that plays Dior was already a bar maid and Ibrahima Traoré, who plays Souleymane, I found him in a real construction site. He was already a worker there, so they’ve experienced with their life and their body and minds what it is to work in these places, so they don’t act. They know it. Then the characters were pretty precise in the script and my way to choose the actors is quite precise too, so I didn’t really discover many new things on the set. I just discovered them as people and I’m surprised their complexity. It’s very interesting to witness on a set the way somebody who has never acted before is going to respond to the experience, to be transformed by it and it’s extremely refreshing and moving to witness a person like Mame [Bineta Sane] who plays Ada to really experience the first day of shooting until the end and how becoming Ada impacts her own life.

One of the things I loved so much is at the beginning of the short, the shot of the ocean really carries you through the rest of the film. How did you want to create the presence of the ocean?

The ocean is really a fantasy. It’s obviously a character in itself in the feature, and my own relationship to the ocean is quite intense because for me, the ocean is a bit like another planet, so I really wanted to picture the ocean as a territory which is a huge projection, like an obstruction or a metaphysical territory that was something very mental, and the relationship that the audience has with this territory changes through the evolution of the film. That’s the internal emotions of Ada, connected to Souleymane, his disappearance and the way Souleymane haunts Ada, so I wanted the ocean to become an illustration of the internal changes and moods of the character. But the ocean is also the [space] where the audience can project all the feelings that these boys have with the ocean – the desire to explore, to transgress the territory, but also the fear provoked by it, so it’s really a huge screen of fantasma and of mystery.

How early are you thinking about the sound?

Sound comes very, very early in my vision. I could definitely start to write a project based on a a sound intuition, and my first desire was really to become a musician or a sound producer, and I write now, but my relationship to cinema is mostly visual and connected to sound. The sound of the ocean came even before the idea of writing a love story [in “Atlantics”] and what I like the most about fantasy cinema is that I think sound or music in a fantasy film is really the thing I stay with the longest. I love when films immerse and leave you a melody, a mood, or a sound atmosphere – it’s the most haunting thing ever and how it can mark you, so for me a fantasy film is mostly a sound piece.

“Atlantics” is now streaming on Netflix.

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