Mati Diop On 'Atlantics,' A Ghost Story, A Love Story And A Refugee Story Mati Diop is the first black woman to compete at the Cannes Film Festival — where her first feature won the Grand Prix. The movie about women left behind by refugees is coming soon to Netflix.
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'Atlantics' Is A Haunting Refugee Story — Of The Women Left Behind In Senegal

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'Atlantics' Is A Haunting Refugee Story — Of The Women Left Behind In Senegal

'Atlantics' Is A Haunting Refugee Story — Of The Women Left Behind In Senegal

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In the new movie "Atlantics," a group of young men set off on a boat from the coast of Senegal in West Africa. They are fed up with their lives and have made the fateful decision to sail to Europe. But "Atlantics" is not a movie about them. It's the story of the women they've left behind. And it's a ghost story. NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: The young woman at the center of "Atlantics" is a teenager named Ada. She's growing up in a conservative Muslim family in Dakar, Senegal. Her parents have arranged her marriage, and planning is underway. But Ada is in love with Souleiman, and they meet in secret by the sea.


IBRAHIMA TRAORE: (As Souleiman, foreign language spoken).

MAME BINETA SANE: (As Ada, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: One night, Ada sneaks out of her bedroom to meet Souleiman at a bar on the beach. The film's director, Mati Diop, sets the scene.

MATI DIOP: And the night where Ada decides to - for the first time of her life to sneak out, when she arrives on the dance floor, she finds an empty dance floor because the boys are no longer here anymore.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in foreign language).

QURESHI: Souleiman never shows up. In the modern language of being stood up, Ada has been ghosted. So have all the other young women waiting for their boyfriends. Ghosting is the precise word to describe what happens next. "Atlantics" dramatizes the stories of the young men who leave countries like Senegal in hopes of reaching Europe and how their absence and their loss haunts the women they abandoned, as filmmaker Mati Diop explains.

DIOP: When I was in Dakar, the way the boys were telling me about the crossing felt very strange to me because I was talking to boys who were here in front of me in flesh and bones but who are so possessed by the idea of elsewhere that they were no longer here anymore. And it's also about a youth who disappeared in the ocean, which can be felt like a ghost generation, you know? - a whole group of young people who disappeared in the ocean. And I personally - I was troubled. I was being haunted by that. And that's why for me, it was always going to be a ghost film.

QURESHI: "Atlantics" is the first feature film by the 37-year-old French writer and director.

DIOP: The starting point of the film is quite personal. I have a very special relationship to migration. I'm the daughter of an immigrant. And as a mixed girl, the tension between departure and coming back is quite present in me.

QURESHI: Mati Diop's father is from Senegal, and her mother is French. And she grew up in Paris in a family of artists, as film critic B. Ruby Rich explains.

B RUBY RICH: Her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety, is a very, very famous filmmaker who went to Cannes in 1973 with his film, which has become a classic of international cinema, "Touki Bouki," that won the International Critics' Award there that year. So she has a kind of creative legacy and specifically a cinematic legacy.

QURESHI: Mati Diop made her first version of "Atlantics" 10 years ago as a short film. She began travelling back and forth between France and Senegal to reconnect with her African heritage. She says she found her voice in those journeys and in her hyphenation.

DIOP: To be a mixed girl born in the '80s is - I think the experience is you're already a little bit in the future, you know, because you're inside a culture of complexity in terms of globalization. And so I think that it made me evolve in a very - yeah, very dynamic environment.

QURESHI: Mati Diop's seamless blend of the supernatural with the pressing crisis of migration has already made "Atlantics" one of the most talked-about international films of the year. But critic B. Ruby Rich says what elevates Atlantics it's beyond its, quote-unquote, "important subject" is the storytelling.

RICH: You hear that there's a film about Senegal. You hear that is a film about men drowning crossing the Mediterranean. Right away, you expect a certain kind of film. But that's not what this film is - not at all. This is a film that is about magic. It's about good magic and black magic. It's about the in-between spaces - you know, between here and there, between Europe and Africa, between those who are alive and those who are dead, between the past and the present - and, in a way, between documentary and fiction.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

QURESHI: "Atlantics" achieves another rare feat for world cinema. It puts the lives of young African women at the center of its story with an ensemble of non-actors recruited from Dakar. When "Atlantics" was selected to compete in this year's Cannes Film Festival, Mati Diop became the first woman of color ever to have her film screened in competition at the festival.

DIOP: All I did was to work on a story that I thought was right to talk about, that was my own challenge, dream and accomplishment. But then the fact to be the first black woman to go there - it was also sad that it was - the first time this happened was in 2019.

QURESHI: Atlantics won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the film is Senegal's official entry to the Oscars. Paris-based film critic B. Ruby Rich says it's also been embraced by audiences in Mati Diop's home country, France.

RICH: After many years of white French filmmakers daring to make films about black bodies, it's wonderfully on point to have someone like Mati Diop now leap to the front of the line and bring her vision of bodies and spirits to the screen.

QURESHI: "Atlantics" will not be confined to arthouse cinemas or European audiences. Netflix acquired the film at Cannes and will release Mati Dip's vision around the world when it begins streaming next week.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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