Atlantics is the first feature from the French director and actress Mati Diop, who took home the Grand Prix at Cannes this year. Diop’s artistic lineage is worthy of mention: She is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki, Metrograph Pictures’ Hyenas), and her first role as an actress was in Claire Denis’ moody masterpiece 35 Shots of Rum. After her series of impressive short films earned her recognition as a filmmaker, Diop relocated to Senegal to shoot Atlantics, undoubtedly one of the richest and most accomplished debuts in recent world cinema.
Ada, a young woman from Dakar, is betrothed to Omar, a wealthy local businessman, but her heart belongs to Souleiman, who has disappeared at sea. In Diop’s assured hands, what begins as a classical melodrama segues unexpectedly into a haunting supernatural mystery. During the film’s North American premiere at the New York Film Festival, Diop sat down with us in anticipation of the film’s Metrograph run, which begins Friday, November 29th. (Minor spoilers to follow.)
Austin Dale: Can I start by asking you briefly about Touki Bouki and Hyenas and your family? Were you around during the making of Hyenas?
Mati Diop: I wasn’t. I was in Paris, being a teenager. I went to Senegal regularly as a child to see my family and spend time there, but I never lived there until my first feature. I decided I needed to make a movie in Senegal in 2008, after my experience with being an actress for Claire Denis. I had already shot a short film in Paris, but I should tell you that 2008 was also the 10th anniversary of my uncle's passing. I felt his absence, and the traces that his films left behind him, in a very strong way. Before 2008, I didn't have enough distance from my own history and familial constellation to realize it. It takes time to figure out where you come from, what it means, and what you can make of that.
I think that the 10th anniversary marked me because some tributes were being organized in Senegal, and I was invited there with my father. It just got me to think about it. I was starting to become a filmmaker myself, so suddenly I made links, thinking, "Oh well, it must have something to do with this." You know? And so this is how I started to think about the project A Thousand Suns, which is not a tribute to my uncle, but a conversation with Touki Bouki and the present situation of migration. I guess my starting points for making films in Dakar was very much connected to my own personal need to explore my African and cinematographic origins.
Austin Dale: African films don’t often make the journey to American cinemas. A lot of viewers are going to have a new experience with Atlantics.
Mati Diop: It definitely takes place in Senegal, in Dakar, so it has everything to do with Africa, but I'm not sure that it necessarily makes sense to talk about that movie as an African film. What I mean by that is: It takes place there, but I don't know if it's really in the continuity of African cinema. I do receive feedback from people who say they’ve been through a cinematographic experience, who feel more receptive to a certain place that they had no idea about, and found they were able to experience a special relationship with a new place. But it's a very universal story, and I'm not an expert on African cinema myself. You know what I mean? I was definitely inspired by my uncle, and there are a lot of African movies I love, but I'm also really inspired by Asian film, American film, and French films too.
I do think that a lot of people are not expecting the imaginary, magical nature of the movie. It’s funny how Africa has been a huge source of inspiration for the Western world, and also at the same time, absolutely denigrated and denied. Africa, for a long time, has been reduced to a lot of stereotypes and cliches and misrepresentations, but I think that with my film and with, I'm sure, more films coming, I think that people around the world will be more and more surprised by what Africa has to offer.
Austin Dale: What was the experience at Cannes with this movie?
Mati Diop: It was... traumatic. I mean, it was obviously extraordinary in a positive way, but it's very strange to have the feeling that what's happening is too big for you to really go through it. I was just coming out after spending seven months editing the movie. For me, editing is something very, very deep. I feel it's really a tunnel into the art of cinema. And it was seven months of being in a dark room, editing. I kind of went from that place to the red carpet. It was incredible, but also violent in a way. I felt I was not ready at all to talk. I was still so introverted. I wouldn't have been able to talk to you like I am talking to you now.
I think that, more and more, these places ask so much from you. They ask you to produce a complete discourse, to have the answers on every subject, to be constantly self-promoting. It’s the job, but I was not ready for that. One day, I asked them to count, and it was actually 45 interviews in one day. That’s crazy.
Austin Dale: Can you talk a little more about the editing process? I’m really curious about what you mean when you call it a tunnel into cinema.
Mati Diop: Well, the script was very much written and structured and felt fully achieved. Then I tried to be adventurous during the shooting, while still trusting the script. The more the film is like the script, the less you imagine that you will invent something new with the editing. But even though it was very structured, so many dimensions needed to appear.
It's a very, very organic film, very visceral. But it is very structured, because you have to connect all the elements: the actors, the music, the rhythm. It’s simply another step of writing. All the material is written, but I needed to find a new architecture, so all the living elements could talk to each other, and the rhythm was so extremely delicate to find. I asked myself: How do you shift from reality to another dimension? And while this was happening, our composer [Fatima Al Qaridi] was playing me the music over the phone, because she was in Berlin, and all the after-effects were made in Belgium. And we shot for seven weeks in Senegal. This was a big international enterprise.
Austin Dale: It’s amazing to hear that because this movie still feels so handmade.
Mati Diop: That’s my lo-fi craft! I was really worried about that. I was worried about it being too polished.
Austin Dale: You've acted in films from very important directors, so you had these influences in your life. You already mentioned Claire Denis. Now that you’re working with young actors yourself, have you thought about what you learned from your experiences as an actor?
Mati Diop: It's never one thing. I couldn't make a list, because it's not really like that for me! You don't necessarily know exactly what you learn from somebody. I don’t think Claire would be comfortable with the idea of teaching me a lesson. It’s more intuitive than that. I see a circulation between people, but it’s mutual. I receive as much from my actors as they receive from me.
Austin Dale: That’s interesting, because your cast is all brand new to acting.
Mati Diop: Yes, they were never actors. They’re living the dream. It’s incredible. And they are very touched to come to New York and present the film. It feels like such a rendez-vous to bring Atlantics here. I have a lot of affection for New York. When I was writing the script, I was in a program at Harvard called the Radcliffe Institute, so I was coming very often to New York. For me, the writing process was very hard. I was a bit depressed because it was so hard. And so it feels good to come back to New York with the film now that it’s done, because the city was a source of inspiration to me.
Austin Dale: You said you’ve done a lot of interviews for the movie. What’s a question that you haven’t been asked yet? Is there anything that you wish someone would ask?
Mati Diop: I’m going to tell you, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to answer it!
Austin Dale: Perfect.
Mati Diop: I'm very surprised that people don't ask why Souleiman didn't inhabit a woman's body. Why the cop? And I'm surprised why people don't ask me more about the graveyard scene. These three questions don’t really come up. But the most interesting questions are about the process and bringing the film into the world. The more concrete the fabrication is, the more the filmmaker is able to talk about what's behind it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.