The supernatural elements in Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” are undeniable and part of its hypnotic appeal. A young Senegalese woman, Ada, is haunted by her lover, Souleiman, who, along with a boatload of other young men, is lost at sea. The spirits of these young men begin possessing local residents as they seek revenge against a greedy construction mogul who leaves them no choice but to flee Senegal in hopes of a better life.
In stark reality, the Oscar-shortlisted international feature is based on a very dark period in the nation’s history.
“Between 2000 and 2010-11 is the period where a lot of people left and where 40,000 people drowned at sea, which is a huge number of people,” says Diop, 37. “And in 2012, there was a very important rupture, like an insurrection.”
That movement, known as Y’en a Marre, occurred just six months after the historic Arab Spring and saw the youth of Senegal stage massive protests to help oust a corrupt president, Abdoulaye Wade.
“It was very surprising to see all of a sudden this very dark chapter end, to see the fire come back as a very big, vital force,” Diop says. “People would go in the street and [celebrate that] they got rid of the ex-president. I was thinking a lot about the lost youth [that preceded them] at that time.”
Diop says “Atlantics,” which won the Grand Prix at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, was her attempt to capture a different dimension in the way the Senegalese people approach the world around them. Those creative choices were confirmed when she screened the film in the capital of Dakar before its release in Senegal last summer.
“The audience there was not in front of a supernatural film. They were in front of their reality,” Diop says. “Even though I’m very into Victorian ghosts and I love these kinds of ghost stories, when it comes to fantasy in Senegal, I really try to [come at] it as a different way of approaching reality.”
The niece of respected Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, the Parisian-born Diop spent a good deal of her childhood visiting the African nation. Circumstances then found her not making that trip for more than a decade, but she eventually began to reconfigure her family’s background through cinema and that, along with the political upheaval, sparked inspiration.
“At this time in Senegal, a very fundamental [change] was going on. A lot of young people were escaping the country for Europe,” Diop says. “The country I was going back to, to re-explore my own self, was being left by so many people of my age. And I think this collision is a bit of the starting point of everything, because it’s like a confrontation with the country of my origins, but in a situation where most people of my age were leaving.”
She became passionate about wanting to share the stories of the youth who lost their lives attempting to emigrate to Europe. And just as important, the stories of the women they left behind and how they dealt with the absence of men. That brings us back to Ada and the remarkable first-time actress who played her, Mame Bineta Sane.
Almost the entire cast was found in Senegal with Diop and her casting director scouting different neighborhoods for locals, but she couldn’t find the right girl to play Ada. She recalls, “We were about to delay [production], because I needed at least two to three months before the shooting to work with her. One day I was scouting with my set designer and I saw a girl coming out of her house. I had an intuition that she had something. So we went back to talk to her.”
Sane, 19, had never acted before and, according to Diop, didn’t really attend school either. The director needed three workshops to make sure she was mentally prepared for it. Could she handle a seven-week adventure? And was she capable of returning to her previous life after this experience was over?
“You don’t just take people and then leave them, you know, [it can be jarring],” Diop says.
In the months since, Sane and other cast members have traveled to the south of France, New York and Los Angeles, among other locales, to promote the film. Diop says Sane’s breakthrough role has led to some offers for other work, but she’s suggested Sane complete her education first.
“I encourage her to become the most independent woman she can be. To be able to read, to write and to speak at least French or English, because she speaks only the Senegalese language Wolof, which is very frustrating,” Diop says. “So I’m really on her side to help her go back to school. If she speaks French or English or both in two or three years, then she can do anything she wants.”