(French title: Atlantique)
dir: Mati Diop
Atlantics is a slow, strange, moody piece; a supernatural slice-of-life covering a few days in the life of a Senegalese girl called Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), living her best life. But before we get to her, we watch a bunch of young Senegalese chaps working at a building site, working for a long time.
A real long time. And at the end of their shift, the guys are like “where is our pay from the last three months?” and no satisfying answers are offered. The tower they are working on looks like something for the Avengers, as their new Senegalese headquarters, maybe, and yet these workers live in tiny homes made of breeze blocks with no windows, and haven’t gotten paid for months. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) yells that he’s in so much debt with not getting paid by their bastard boss, that he avoids going home until it’s dark, so he doesn’t get chased by creditors.
Souleiman rides home in the back of a truck with his mates, and though we don’t know it yet, they have hatched a plan. He visits his girlfriend Ada, and they try to get it on but are interrupted, and she tells him to cool his boots, as they will be meeting again later that night.
When she sees some of her girlfriends, they taunt her about a few things, but she has friends from different walks of life, it appears, and not all of them are trash. She has a religious friend Mariama (Mariama Gassama), always wearing the hijab, who scolds her for her wicked ways and reminds her that God is testing her with temptation, since she’s meant to be marrying some jerk called Omar in a number of days, and not swanning about with the far more handsome and likable Souleiman.
Her other friends, who Mariama doesn’t like, routinely give her the kind of bad advice that good friends who don’t care if you fuck up all the time would give. They’re materialist and selfish, but they’re not wrong. Like Ada, many of them have boyfriends or brothers who worked at the construction site with Souleiman.
But, that same night, when Ada goes to their local bar on the beach, looking out as it does across the Atlantic Ocean (Senegal is a West African country), all of the girls are there, but neither Souleiman nor any of the other guys are present. They have, apparently, commandeered a boat and decided to sail to Spain, to Europe and towards the promise of a better life.
Well, it would be impossible for that not to be a clear reference to the refugee drama unfolding across the world, where people of whatever nations flee from war and economic hardship and towards the kinds of countries that until the last century were running colonial empires. Now these former colonial masters want to barricade themselves away and make it harder for these desperate, industrious people to survive, but still countless people try, because the alternative doesn’t feel like an alternative.
Though Ada is meant to marry a rich local guy, she can’t stop thinking about Souleiman, and her heart is clearly never going to be in it. Her parents, devout jerks that they are, also insist on her obedience in this as in all matters, no matter how despicable. So even though Ada desperately awaits word from Souleiman, to hear that he and the other guys are all right, she is compelled to go through with the wedding.
On the night of the wedding, a fire is started in what was to be Ada’s marital bed. Omar comes from an ‘important’ family, so the cops get involved and start yelling at people. So this fire, despite having no obvious origin, is where the strangeness really begins.
Just before the fire, Ada’s friend Mariama insisted on telling her that she’s seen Souleiman around town. And the cops, led by a young inspector (Amadou Mbow) who keeps having fainting episodes every day around dusk, don’t believe Ada that Souleiman has skipped town on a boat, and insist that she must be lying. She keeps being threatened and manhandled, and no-one really is on her side.
Of course, that’s when reports come in that the boat the young chaps were on sank during a storm.
And yet, strange things keep happening. Friends of Ada’s start experiencing weird symptoms, and blacking out, and Ada is convinced that Souleiman is texting her to meet up, even as she is convinced both that a) he’s still around and b) he was on a boat that sank killing everyone on board, and c) he’s still around.
Also, the cops suck, her parents suck, aspects of her culture suck, and there are few people around her that she can rely on. About the only thing she really knows is how much she loved / loves Souleiman. Everything else is somewhat mysterious and changeable like the ocean she keeps gazing at, somehow hoping that the boat will come back with all the boys on board.
I am not going to pretend I know much of anything about Senegalese culture. The only reason I knew that this was set in Dakar, being the capital of Senegal, is because the subtitles on Netflix would shift around saying “(speaking in Wolof, speaking in Arabic, speaking in French)”. And when I looked up Wolof on my phone, well, the rest all fell into place.
The setting seems to be an extraordinary blend of cultures, as the predominant religion at least amongst this community appears to be Muslim, and they’re building sci-fi towers, but their lives seem fairly hardscrabble, yet they have iPhones and such. It’s modern, but parents can still take their daughters to a hospital for virginity tests.
You know, the worst of possible worlds, like a lot of places, if you’re poor or a woman in general, or a woman in a religious community.
And overall, there is this feeling that the veil between the living and the dead is somehow thinner here, and that the predominant religion, while deeply significant culturally, hasn’t replaced an array of older beliefs; of spirits and possession, of vengeful ghosts and of seeking justice in the face of the selfish and the absurd.
While Ada sticks up for herself, she really doesn’t have much of a path beyond longing mopily for Souleiman, and gradually realising that the life most of the girls around her want isn’t for her. All she wants is love, and all she wants is Souleiman, but that’s not really possible anymore.
And yet… She does take some steps which imply she will not make herself beholden to a husband’s family, or subservient to her own any longer, once she figures out what it is she should be doing with her life. She starts learning the ropes of working bar, with her friend Dior (Nicole Sougou), who’s more practical than some of her other golddigger friends, but not blinded by being devote like Mariama. She is the one who advises Ada that, sure, she could step away from the life that has been set up for her, but it will be a hard life on her own terms, and lonely.
And then there’s the ocean. Not long ever passes before another shot of the endless, ominous waves is shown. There’s nothing inviting about it. If anything, it is always menacing. There are no scenes of enjoying the water, or even the use of water for living, as in fishing or transport. It’s just there, promising escape and freedom but also oblivion. It doesn’t care, and while it can kill it does not trap the dead. It doesn’t bring their bodies back, but it won’t stop their souls in getting to their final destinations.
This is not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some freaky scenes, as a man walks into a room full of women he doesn’t know, and none of them are who they appear to be. They do demand what they are entitled to, as others demanded at the beginning, but they aren’t threatening the chap they blame for the demise of the boys. There has been enough death: they just want justice and rest, I think.
The police inspector who investigates the seemingly unimportant issue of who set fire to the bed goes on the strangest journey within this flick, initially because he’s pursuing the wrong suspect, but also because he doesn’t understand what’s going on within himself. He initially seems like an antagonist to Ada, for no good reason, because, after all, cops suck in any culture, but he doesn’t even know how involved he is in everything. Most of this he conveys just by sweating a lot and looking very confused, and having to lie to his boss all the time as to why he never answers his phone at night.
And when he tries to take steps to stop what he things is about to happen, well, let’s just say you can’t stop destiny. And it really seems like Souleiman and Ada were meant to be together, at least for one night, and not the cops, not the ocean, not death itself will be able to stop them.
This is an unconventional film, with none of the rhythms and beats that one usually expects in films, even if one has expectations of what a film from Senegal would be about. I’ve only seen one other Senegalese film, and that wasn’t even set in Senegal, being Moolade, and that was about the awfulness of female genital mutilation, and about a woman taking a stand and protecting the young girls of her village. It wasn’t very up to the minute in terms of its pop culture references and such, but the tale of liberating women from patriarchal is an unfortunately timeless one, because this awful shit keeps happening.
The director here, Mati Diop, leans in to the elements of the story she wants to tell, and to hell with conventional narratives or plot momentum. The story gets to where it needs to be when it is good and ready, and not a second or fifteen minutes before hand. I can see a lot of people finding this flick frustrating, and while some parts of its slowness irritated me, there were plenty of times when it felt like that aimless wanting and waiting had a point, in what is, after all, a love story.
And a gorgeous love story at that. It helps that the cinematography is so exquisite, here again is the great work of cinematographer Claire Mathon, who lensed the exquisite Portrait of a Lady on Fire as well last year, and I feel lucky to have watched both recently.
Atlantics. Life is full of sorrow and then someone you love drowns.
8 times there’s plenty more ghosts in the sea out of 10
“Every time you look at the top of the tower, you will think of our unburied bodies at the bottom of the sea.” – what a cheery thing to tell someone, on Mother’s Day, no less! – Atlantics.