Atlantics is Mati Diop’s first feature film for which she became the first black female director to vie for the Cannes Film Festival’s most coveted prize, the Palme d’Or. She was only one of four women accepted in the festival that year. The film won the Grand Prix.
A love story, a ghost story, a not your usual story about migration, a story about the women who are left behind when their men migrate. The film’s heady, sensory mix aroused much controversy when it first premiered in 2019.
The setting of the film is Dakar, Senegal, the hometown of Mati Diop’s father. Ada, played by Mame Bineta Sane, a young woman and a young construction worker, Souleiman, played by Ibrahima Traore, are in love but her parents have arranged her marriage to Omar (Babacar Sylla), a rich businessmen. Frustrated from being cheated of their wages, Souleiman and a group of young men set off on a boat for Spain from the coast of Senegal, and the boat that capsizes in the Atlantic ocean.
One night Ada sneaks out of her bedroom to meet Souleiman at a bar on the beach, a place where the young kids of Dakar usually get together. But when she arrives, the dance floor is empty because the boys were no longer here, having left the girls behind.
On her wedding night, Omar’s house catches fire. The mattress—the nuptial bed-to-be—goes up in flames, sending wedding-goers running for the exits. Upon investigation, the bed wasn’t set on fire so much as it spontaneously combusted. But witnesses say they saw Souleiman and says he’s the one who did. Police inspector (Amadou Mbow) believes that Souleiman, though believed to be dead, was the culprit, guilty of arson. The romantic drama takes a ghostly, supernatural turn. Roving gangs of young girls with dead eyes start wreaking havoc at night. Strange things happen as the zombie-looking girls wreak retribution on behalf of the construction workers.
How does it all add up? This plot mixes different genres, tackling pressing global issues of migration, depicting the social and political realities of Senegalese society, corruption and religious beliefs, superstitions, and dramatizing the plight of Senegalese women abandoned by their men who leave in search of a better life. Filmed with a slightly surreal cinematic beauty with the Atlantic ocean forever looming and beckoning….
Diop made her first version of Atlantics 10 years ago as a short film. Wanting to reconnect with her African heritage and bringing her personal experience as a migrant herself, she began traveling to Senegal to find her voice as a French-Senegalese. So in a sense, this story about migration and how it affects women is a personal story.
Thankfully, this landmark film isn’t relegated to arthouse theaters as it is available on Netflix.