What does the future hold for Ada? A young woman living in Dakar, Senegal, Ada seems to have her whole life planned out for her. She is to be married to wealthy and respectable Omar to the envy of her close friends who are all seduced by her new luxurious home. For Ada, though, this new life of stability and excess doesn’t compare to the love she has for construction worker Souleiman. When Souleiman and his colleagues are let go from work in Dakar, having not received their pay for three months, they head out to sea, across the Atlantic, searching for greater opportunities. News soon reaches Dakar that their boat has overturned in a storm and after strange experiences of the supernatural there are rumours of Souleiman’s return. Atlantics presents a striking and competent feature debut from director and co-writer Mati Diop for whom filmmaking runs in the family. She is the niece of the late internationally acclaimed Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty and as an actor Diop she has worked with French director Claire Denis on the film 35 Shots of Rum.
Based on Diop’s experimental short film from 2009, Atlantics has an elusive and undefinable quality, unexpectedly shifting and avoiding convention; it resembles a coming-of-age romance, an intriguing mystery, and a supernatural thriller all mixed into one. Despite this somewhat jarring oscillation, Diop grounds the film by investing the audience in the relationship of its central characters. When we first see Ada and Souleiman onscreen together they are separated by train tracks and a passing train. We see glimpses of their faces between the carriages as they affectionally smile at one other. This introduces the film’s young lovers who are at once intimately entwined and unavoidably separated.
It is these moments of visual expression, when Diop lets the scene play and emotions heighten, that ultimately resonate. In one scene, where Ada mourns Souleiman’s departure, she sits alone in a nightclub while light beams brush over her distraught face. Fatima Al Qadiri’s astonishing and evocative electronic score pulses and reverberates in time with the sound of waves callously crashing on the shore. Within this alignment of visual and aural expression there is a tender and affecting moment of deep and personal loss. In fact, the ocean plays a crucial yet enigmatic character in the film, representing hope and opportunity whilst maintaining a constant ominous presence, inhabiting the film’s sparring tonal relationship between tender romance and supernatural revenge.
When watching the final moments of Atlantics – Ada finally in control of her own future staring down the camera in front of a turbulent sea – it is hard not to be reminded of Ashton Sanders’s similar direct address at the end of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Both seemingly take inspiration from young Jean-Pierre Léaud’s resonant stare in the final frames of Francois Truffaut’s seminal coming-of-age film The 400 Blows. It is a confronting final image that is deployed in all three instances to disparate effects, but as for Ada, emboldened by experience and her new-found independence, she looks defiantly into the future.
Atlantics is a remarkable film in many ways but perhaps most notably because of its history making status. At the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Mati Diop became the first woman from African descent to have a film screened in the festival’s 72-year history. The film competed for the Palme d’Or and went on to win the competition’s Grand Prix. This undeniably incredible achievement is also an embarrassing and pertinent reminder of the imbalance that still needs to be redressed concerning black women in the film industry and their representation onscreen.
Following its festival success – the film won the Sutherland Award for First Feature at the BFI London Film Festival and is Senegal’s entry to the academy awards – and its upcoming Netflix release, hopefully 'Atlantics' can reach the wider audience it deserves.
Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor