In her directorial debut Atlantics, history-making filmmaker Mati Diop creates a transcendent film that addresses migration through fantasy while remaining rooted in reality and home. The film is as aesthetically beautiful as it is a visionary social commentary. The cinematography (Claire Mathon) and music (Fatima Al Quadiri) of the film carefully curate the ever-changing moods and genres of Atlantics. Its visuals and sonics will hypnotize you, but the dialogue shocks you back into reality.
Atlantics feels like a coming-of-age love story, crime mystery, and supernatural fantasy rolled into one. It begins as a love story centered around Ada (Mama Sané) and Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). They are young lovebirds in Dakar, Senegal stealing kisses in abandoned buildings while conspiring to meet up at local night clubs. But suddenly, things change.
Souleiman and his friends are young men working construction for a shady developer that hasn’t paid them in three months. Their resentment and frustration are palpable. Fed up and in desperate need of money, they go “to sea”: risking their lives on a boat in hopes of reaching job opportunities in Spain. Ada is one of many shocked girlfriends left behind and the depth of her connection to Souleiman leaves her especially devastated and unsettled. While Souleiman consumes her thoughts, she has to face the reality that she is betrothed to another, a wealthy man named Omar. As Ada’s engagement party proceeds, she cannot mask her uncertainty. Between her friends’ mixed advice and her feelings about a possible Souleiman sighting, she is utterly confused.
As if by an otherworldly force, a fire erupts during the engagement party. A police investigation ensues, led by a young detective named Issa (Amadou Mbow), transitioning the film into a crime mystery. Issa’s investigation illuminates not only the culprit of the arson, but the film’s supernatural, paranormal, and Afrofuturist underlinings.
In the world of Atlantics, justice seems impossible for those bound to the rules of the natural world. Without spoiling the film, supernatural forces are necessary for Souleiman and his friends to collect the debts owed to them by the shady land developer. Detective Issa’s arson case and mysterious illness can only be solved when he opens his mind to paranormal possibilities. Atlantics flips the narrative of a paranormal film. Viewers learn that the truly scary and frightening things are the everyday realities of Dakar. The paranormal is their salvation. Only with Afrofuturist imaginations can they envision equitable futures where Ada and Soueliman can be together.
With Atlantics, Diop creates a story that is both fantastical and universal. The characters’ desires are simple. They are young people trying to establish their livelihoods and negotiate friendship, family, and romance. From these universal desires, Diop begins to layer fantasy over subjects that viewers may not easily relate to or understand like migration, betrothal, and ‘virginity tests.’ She creates a multifaceted coming-of-age, teen drama while unpacking subjects traditionally exploited for their trauma.
Diop handles the resolution of Souleiman and his friends’ journey with a complex understanding of migration that extends beyond economic desperation and political instability. Atlantics provides the youth in its film something seldom present in films about Africa or migration: rebellion. Before they are potential migrants or betrothed brides, they are rebellious teenagers. They are impulsive, easily influenced by their friends and disobedient of their parents, all without fully understanding the repercussions.
Ada’s agency is continually challenged throughout the film in ways reflective of Dakar’s culture but she resists in nuanced ways. She defines her faith and values independently. The audience knows ultimately she will decide what’s right for her, despite her parents and future in-laws forcing “virginity tests” on her and shaming her for her association with Souleiman. Diop can create a character like Ada because she understands teenage rebellion occurs in all cultures, including African ones. Her multidimensional characters represent the range of teenagers in Dakar negotiating their adolescence. From characters to the storyline, Atlantics rejects monoliths and generalizations.
The tone of rebellion is even present in the film’s portrayal of migration. Souleiman and his friends’ decision to “go to sea” is as much about disillusionment and economic hardship as it is about a coming-of-age rite of passage. Diop’s understanding of how peer pressure factors into their decision-making shaped the film. “I could feel a viral phenomenon,” she recalled during an interview with The Guardian. “Like: ‘My big brother’s doing it [migrating], this kid from the neighbourhood is doing it, so I’m gonna do it, too.’ I was shocked by the magnetic feeling I had from it.” Diop uses the sea to represent this magnetism. The imagery of “the sea” is never off the screen for long. The sound of waves seems to lure the teens, calm their stress, and represent the uncertainty of their futures.
There is also a rebellious spirit in Detective Issa’s approach to solving the arson case and his mysterious illness. He consistently chooses traditional methods and rationale even though everything about the case doesn’t align. He applies Western logic to his problems and is increasingly frustrated when it doesn’t obtain the solutions he desires. Detective Issa’s decisions are rebellious because Atlantics exist within a culture that acknowledges the existence of the mystical, where Western logic doesn’t solve their problems. When Ada’s friends experience unexplainable symptoms, their initial thought is that a ‘spirit’ took hold of them or they’re being punished for rebellious behavior. Spirt possession and ghosts are within their schema but they are being reassured that there must be a ‘logical’ explanation for their symptoms and memory loss. They are pushed to move away from their intuition and cultural knowledge systems. As the story progress, Atlantics demonstrates that it is only through those systems and inclusion of the supernatural that the teens’ worlds can make sense.
Diop’s style continues her family’s commitment to Senegalese storytelling. “My own personal story is: I’m a daughter of an immigrant, who traveled to France right after shooting Touki Bouki with his brother, which is also a film about migration.” Touki Bouki is an iconic Senegalese film written and directed by her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty. It was a complete departure from the African films of the time, particularly those of Ousmane Sembène (the ‘father of African film’). It experimented with fantasy and nonlinear storytelling. Touki Bouki was acknowledged internationally, winning the international critics’ award at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Moscow Film Festival.
In the 1970s, Touki Bouki examined youth and migration from the vantage point of a newly independent Senegal. Today, Diop’s Atlantics examines these same themes in a modern context with additional nuance. She brings her experiences as an actress and French-Senegalese woman into her storytelling. Diop is the first biracial woman to direct a film in the main competition at Cannes. She also won the festival’s Grand Prix Award. Her first feature is making history and expanding African storytelling for a new generation. Amidst the Academy’s controversial disqualifications of Lionheart and Joy, Atlantics was shortlisted for Best International Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Ultimately, Atlantics did not receive the nomination for Best Foreign Film but its impact is more powerful than any singular award show. A film told in Wolof, with an all Senegalese cast, and predominantly female creatives at the helm resonated with global audiences. They were able to display migration in its full complexity without setting the story in a refugee camp or on the voyage itself. They centered interpersonal relationships and the physical city of Dakar in ways that audiences never forgot everyone impacted by decisions to “go to sea.” Audiences could consider what is sacrificed in making this decision. They begin to understand that even those making these decisions are conflicted, unsure, and often unprepared.
Diop transformed the ways migration stories are told and ways social commentary can look. By presenting layered storytelling, she delivered social commentary without diminishing artistic or entertainment value. Her characters are more than their trauma and hardships. She expanded upon Touki Bouki, with her nuanced incorporation of gender, womanhood, and sexuality in her work. She demonstrated the wholeness and multifacetedness African characters deserve. Hopefully, more films telling African love stories, coming-of-age dramas, and fantasy will follow in her path. Atlantics could usher in a new wave of African storytelling that will penetrate audiences around the world.
Atlantics is streaming now on Netflix.