Interview with Mati Diop, the director of “Atlantique”

Interview with Mati Diop, the director of “Atlantique”

Interview with Mati Diop, the director of “Atlantique”

To Mati Diop it took seven weeks to film Atlantique but – tell us – it’s a film he’s worked on a lifetime. “Migration is part of who I am»Explains the 37-year-old director. “Sand my father had not come to France, now I would not be here in front of you. And I wouldn’t have made this movie». Diop was raised in Paris by a French mother and a Senegalese father, and the storyteller spirit runs through her veins. His uncle is Djibril Diop Mambéty, the well-known director of Touki Bouki is Hyenas. In the past, Diop has worked both in front of and behind the camera and her acting resume includes 35 Rhums by Claire Denis e Hermia & Helena by Matías Piñeiro.

Atlantique, his debut film, expertly weaves a multitude of stories to create a touching and compelling ghost story, set in Dakar and shotmainly in Wolof language. At the center of the story is Ada, a young woman promised in marriage to a wealthy man, Omar, although her heart belongs to a construction worker named Souleiman. When Souleiman and the other workers, tired of being exploited and underpaid, set off on a boat trip in search of a better life in Europe, the tragedy sets in and they disappear. But only physically. Their spirit returns to ask for justice and to reunite with loved ones. The film is such a succession of unusual events, from spontaneous combustion to a case of supernatural possession, che our story can’t really act as a spoiler.

In May 2019, Diop entered history by becoming the first black director to present a film in competition in Cannes to then win the Grand Prix of the Jury. Since then, she has won the inaugural Mary Pickford award at the Toronto Film Festival in September and iHis film was selected as Senegalese Oscar nominee.

From Atlantique, Mame Bineta Sane is Ada

© Netflix

Here is how Diop tells us about the work of his life.

**What made you want to make a film about migration? **

I started imagining my movie 10 years ago, before what people now call “migration crisis”. Personally, I don’t think there is a migration crisis, but rather a moral and political crisis. As an immigrant’s daughter, migration is part of my story and identity and I see it as a complex and existential reality rather than as a subject ».

When I returned to Senegal in 2009 to explore my African roots and culture, I found that young people were fleeing the country en masse to Europe, on a boat, looking for a better future. The loss of so many young lives at sea shook me deeply and I was nauseous about how the media misinterpreted their stories. Then I decided to make a short film in which a young man tells his personal story of traveling to Europe. Then I decided to turn it into a feature film to reach a wider audience. I don’t want those lives to have been lost in vain; migration affects everyone ».

**Why was it important to introduce a supernatural element into history? **

The idea was to write a ghost story about a generation that lost its life at sea, the omnipresence of their absence and the girls from a neighborhood who stayed at home is they are persecuted by the spirits of these missing boys. I wanted the film to offer a place where these spirits could find refuge, to ask for justice, to receive the money they owed and to make love with their loved ones one last time. It’s a very new topic, born out of people talking in terms of “illegal” when they leave the country where they were born. It is essential that cinema and literature not only give visibility to those who are oppressed, but that they also represent it in an authentic way».

**Where exactly was the film filmed in Dakar and why did you choose this location? **

I chose Thiaroye, a fishing community in the suburbs, first of all for aesthetic reasons but also because of its history. When African soldiers [che hanno combattuto per la Francia Libera] they were brought here after the Second World War, asked for a pay equal to that of the white soldiers. French officers refused and killed up to 300 African soldiers when they complained or protested. That night [il 30 novembre 1944] is known by the name of MAssassination of Thiaroye but it is a story of which not much is known as everything possible has been done to cover up the incident “.

Atlantique, Ibrahima Mbaye and Moustapha

© Netflix

The boys of Thiaroye who today travel to Europe by boat are the descendants of those murdered soldiers. It is interesting to set a story of revenge on that same ground but it is mostly a gesture; it was enough for me to know why I chose to shoot here. That between Senegal and France is a violent story, but my generation and I are going beyond it to write a new one ».

**Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the island of Gorée off Dakar was used to house slaves before they were transported to the other side of the Atlantic in the Americas. Was this forced movement of people in your thoughts while filming Atlantique? **

«When I shot the short film in 2009, it was hard for me not to perceive the parallels between these waves of departures. It was very distressing to me to conceive that young men would embark and endanger their lives to go to Europe, especially when you think that the slave trade was the opposite. Dakar seemed to me a sort of ghost town and the Atlantic a haunted and haunted place».

**What was the biggest challenge in making Atlantique? **

I guess hiring the right people and training them as actors is always the hardest thing, as the characters represent the beating heart of the film. I have a documentary approach to casting. To find Souleiman, I went to a construction site because I wanted him to know this reality. Dior [la migliore amica di Ada] she worked as a bartender when I met her and her life was quite similar to that of her character. “

It took me seven months to find Ada. I was about to postpone the filming when, one day, I saw this girl [Mame Bineta Sane] in Thiaroye, and it was wonderful because she appeared when I wasn’t looking for her intentionally. The fact that until then we had not been able to find the right actress made me even more determined to engage in the casting process, because then I chose the rest of the actors as if I were her: who were my friends, and who is my lover? ».

Atlantique, Nicole Sougou is Dior

© Netflix

**Why do you think Senegalese musician and artist Fatima Al Qadiri was the best person to create the soundtrack? **

«Fatima is absolutely one of the best musicians and artists of my generation and embodies the music of my time. I chose it because I wanted the music in the film to bewitch the audience like a djinn [una sorta di genio o folletto, citato nel Corano. NdT]; but he also had the right understanding of the film’s complex geopolitical scenario. My way of telling stories feeds on many different references: European Gothic and Romanticism but also my African and Muslim tradition, so I think the film is a strange aesthetic combination. Fatima and I have a very similar hybrid culture ».

How did you feel when you became the first black director in competition in Cannes during its 72 years of history, to then win the Grand Prix?

“One of the first things I said to myself was” Yes, it’s true, I’m the first black woman to go to Cannes. I can’t believe we’re still at this point. ” But, on the other hand, shooting my first film in Africa was a real choice for me, a stance. It would have been very easy for me to opt for a color-blind approach (without racial bias) and consider myself a French director. I’m not a white girl. In retrospect, it seems very reductive to focus on the color of my skin. I wasn’t just the first black female director to climb the steps of Cannes, I was the first 36-year-old woman in competition with a debut film, filmed in Dakar, in Wolof language. This is the truth».

Do you wish that Atlantique’s success would encourage a revival of Senegalese cinema to which figures such as your uncle and Ousmane Sembène were precursors?

I don’t think about Atlantique in terms of Senegalese cinema but simply in terms of cinema. Djibril has a huge legacy and there is a lack of directors and cinemas across Africa since his death. There is a great emptiness, and I say it objectively, not only because I am his granddaughter. I wanted to shoot Atlantique in Senegal so that the legacy and tradition were not lost; it would be a tragedy. It is important to have an eye on Africa that is truly African. The films are not limited to just telling stories, they should create an impact that encourages others to produce new works ».

Atlantique is distributed in Italy by Netflix.

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