...of these fifteen, so miraculously saved, life constituted the sole possession, being literally stripped of everything.
—Jean-Baptiste Sevigny and Alexandre Corréard, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816
From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief…
Mati Diop is a master of the low-key shock-cut. In Atlantiques (2009), a nonfiction experimental short she made while attending Le Fresnoy, a single edit midway through the film simultaneously opens its world and closes it up around us. In Snow Canon (2011), her half-hour fiction follow-up, a night-to-morning jump-cut changes a two-shot of women in a bed into an image of adolescent confusion, longing, isolation—and much more besides.
In Atlantiques, in a firelit beachside nocturne accompanied by the terrifying/comforting white-noise drone of the ocean, twenty-something Senegalese man Serigne chats to his two buddies (one of them is Diop’s own cousin) about his desire to set sail, once again, in search of a better life. Serigne, we infer, has returned to Senegal having been deported following a perilous journey to Spain. And he has nothing to show for his hardship. “Even with the risks involved,” he says, “if a pirogue was leaving—and to hell with me and may I die if I lie—I would get on board, I swear on it. If I must die, so be it. You know why? I have nothing but dust in my pockets.”
Cut. Another young man, shot against a sinking sun—the brightness of the image in jolting contrast to the preceding darkness—turns to the camera. Cut. Tombstones: he’s in a graveyard. Inscriptions are translated by an off-screen voice. “It’s written that Serigne died on December 23rd, 2008… Yet, he passed away on the 21st.” Silence, birdsong, a grieving woman’s face: the transition is a lyrical place-time shift on the one hand and a devastatingly straightforward gut-punch on the other. It underscores a young man’s now-or-never convictions—ingrained in him through the reality of acute scarcity—and his embodiment of and meaning to an entire community.
In Senegal’s local Wolof language, Barça mba barzakh
has become a saying: Barcelona or death. In 2005 and 2006, the so-called “pirogue phenomenon” reached its peak. As an article in Al Jazeera
last year noted, “The Spanish authorities of the Canary Islands reported apprehending 30,000 migrants in 2006 from several African countries, 15,000 of whom were Senegalese.” At least one seventh of the 7,000 African refugees who died that year were from Senegal.
Diop distills this situation into a powerfully intuitive response. Atlantiques is clear-cut in its specifics—a man’s face, the desperation it conveys—but it also teases at deeper ironies relating to migration to and from the Senegalese coast. Her reference point, quoted late on, is surgeon Jean-Baptiste Sevigny and engineer-geographer Alexandre Corréard’s survivors’ account of the Méduse, the French naval frigate that struck the Bank of Arguin, off the Mauritanian coast, en route to Saint-Louis on the Senegal River—where the French were to receive the British handover—in 1816. There had been 400 people on board the Méduse when it embarked from Rochefort; of the 151 men that boarded an improvised raft after it ran aground, fifteen survived. The experience on the raft (starvation, delirium, cannibalism) became the subject of Théodore Géricault’s 1818-19 painting Le Radeau de la Méduse.
Diop’s deployment of Sevigny and Corréard’s text allows her to map, however obliquely, contemporary emigration and our refugee crisis against historic immigration and 19th century colonial gain. The passage itself, presented onscreen as if in verse, is evocative of something residing at the base of human experience: “This fever is a nightly invader that strikes the patient during deep sleep. He jumps off his bed and runs to the bridge. There, he believes seeing beyond the waves trees, forests, flowered meadows. His joy erupts in [a] thousand exclamations. He experiences the most burning desire to flow into the ocean.” Unable to place it, I first thought that this might be from Stoker’s Dracula (1898), that other account of transcontinental migration across the high seas—one in which Marx read a metaphor for capital itself.
“We’re here talking,” Serigne says, “but my mind is elsewhere.” Indeed, he is already a ghost-image, there but not there: one of the fish-people he imaginatively refers to, who swim to their new life rather than succumb to a grim fate at sea. When he reappears in the film—Diop returns after the graveyard interlude to the previous scene at the beach—words and gestures are infused with a profound sadness. Tenses mix in a verbal-visual eeriness, as one of his pals envisages his death and narrates the prospective aftermath to him as if already living out a future (“But that’s not how we wished to bury Serigne”). Diop deploys montage at once to resurrect the dead and to reassert the vulnerability of the living. Her film ends, to the tune of Bent’s aptly named “The Everlasting Blink,” with images of a Fresnel lens inside a lighthouse: another instrument of illumination and refraction, another guiding light between life and death.
Diop’s ellipses imply a new space, a whole life (and death), of unseen emotion. In Snow Canon, which she co-scripted with Judith Lou Lévy, she tells a similar tale of anywhere-but-here; whereas Atlantiques’ is one of economic necessity, however, the later film is told from the perspective of a French teen, Vanina (Nilaya Bal), who longs for warmth and intimacy while holidaying in the French Alps. This is the cultural antipode of Serigne’s predicament and trajectory: in the absence of best pal Eloïse (Chan Coic), who is spending her summer in Cancun, Mexico, Vanina seeks some kind of human connection with her babysitters—first Simon (Alban Guyon), and then Mary Jane (Nour Mobarak).
Vanina corresponds with Chan in frank, txt-spk missives, revealed in close-ups of a computer screen accompanied by the borderline embarrassing, nobody-should-hear-this sound of an isolated, late-at-night keyboard. The growing proximity to Simon with which she updates her friend is contradicted by their scenes together, in which Diop blocks out a palpable lack of chemistry. Likewise, when Simon is replaced by American traveler Mary Jane, there’s a notable discrepancy between what we see unfold between Vanina and her latest au pair and what the teen reports back to Chan. “Just some housekeeper,” she says initially, though Diop cuts immediately after to a scene in which her protagonist fixates on the babysitter’s buttocks as the latter cleans a window.
This is just the type of clichéd scenario one might dream up in adolescence; the point-of-view shots of Mary Jane going about household chores seem informed, in fact, by the kind of visual grammar with which a female director might frame a girl-on-girl fantasy. Diop develops a deeply felt eroticism here as a function of everyday banality. It’s fantasy as the outcome of geographic and mental displacement: boredom. Frequent cutaways to the jagged, unforgiving alpine textures of the natural world compound such banality, framing the fleeting triviality of a pubescent teen’s (nevertheless very real) hormones against a geological anti-drama. “Warning,” reads a sign as Vanina walks away from Mary Jane when the latter takes a phone call from (we presume) her lover back home. “Risk of Falling Blocks of Ice.”
The erotic charge of Snow Canon is predicated on a dichotomy between denial and attraction, and on the imbalance between a young woman and a less young woman—an imbalance informed by disparities in confidence, experience and the perceptual infrastructure required to read and misread signals. Diop’s cut from that shot of Mary Jane lying in bed with Vanina to a shot of Vanina alone, the next morning, almost clutching the absent patch of mattress, is as brutal as it is heartbreaking. An entire other film exists in the rupture—like a gap between divergent tectonic plates. More cutaways to mountains follow.
There’s a tremendous physicality at play here, stemming as much from the space between characters as the unconventionally vivid beauty contained within Bal’s and Mobarak’s faces: each bears the raw expressiveness of untapped talent. It’s here where Claire Denis’s influence on Diop—easy to overstate—is clear; Diop is perhaps best known for her acting contribution to Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and there’s a similar flash of nightclub color and musicality to that film in one particular scene here (in another scene, Vanina watches, we hear, Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire western).
A great deal of short filmmaking is knowing when and when not to end. Mary Jane, about to leave, turns and kisses Vanina. There’s a pause, and then they kiss again. If we take this action as a single gesture in two parts, the first is shot from behind Vanina, denying us visual access to the human connection (the touching of tongues), while the second, initiated by a newly empowered Vanina, is a more accommodating profile view. The extreme sexiness of the scene is rooted in how meaningful it is beyond sexuality: a first kiss that is also destined to be the only kiss—farewell, thanks, and everything else that hasn’t been and won’t be said. Then, reality: Diop returns her younger protagonist to the holiday home in a startlingly wide shot of mostly negative space. If the preceding kiss provided some kind of catharsis, the consequent image restores something more poignant: a world simultaneously unchanged and transformed forever. Cut.