It seems ridiculous that 2019 heralds the first female woman of colour to be selected in the main competition at Cannes, but as we all know, progress is embarrassingly slow at film festivals. Mati Diop, however, is a worthy contender; in her career as a filmmaker so far she has established herself as a consistently beguiling storyteller. Atlantique follows in the wake of her work as both an actor and the writer/director of several short films, and with each work her identity as an artist grows in clarity.
Diop’s 2009 documentary short Atlantiques recounts the harrowing experiences of a group of Senegalese men trying to cross the Atlantic ocean on small boats called pirogues, seeking a better life in Spain. A decade later, her fiction feature tells of the women left behind as these men take their chances on the ocean.
Ada (Mame Benita Sane) is in love with construction worker Souleimane (Ibrahima Traore) but already promised to marry an older, wealthier man. With few prospects in Dakar, Souleimane and his co-workers depart by boat, but are believed to have died shortly after setting off. This event sets in motion a strange series of happenings, bringing elements of magical realism into the story, intertwined with a very real examination of how illegal migration tears families apart.
The concept is certainly an intriguing one, and Diop, serving as both director and writer, has a strong gift for visuals, which gives Atlantique its hazy, dream-like atmosphere. Yet the film struggles to weave together multiple narrative threads, and the characterisation of even leading roles feels painted only with the broadest strokes. There’s more of a sense of place than people; the dusty heat of Dakar, the dark blue hum of a local bar where girls meet to gossip and dance with boys.
It’s an accomplished first feature even with its faults, and Diop should definitely be on everyone’s radar as a filmmaker to watch.