Images of the North Atlantic—sunbathed, moonlit, digitally rendered in some shots but no less striking—punctuate Mati Diop’s hypnotic debut feature Atlantics (Atlantique). The waves surging the shores of Dakar, Senegal poetically encapsulate the duality that animates her soulful fable, where the ocean emerges as a central character, seductive and foreboding, a specter of past and contemporary traumas, buried and bound to resurface with the tide. Ten years ago, Diop’s original short of the same name referenced the infamous journey of the Méduse, the 19th century French naval frigate that departed from Rochefort and ran aground off the West African coast. Close to mind are kin events, the refugee crisis and—more so here than in its progenitor—memory of the Middle Passage: the voyage of no return, the moment of rupture that beget generations of two-spirited children.
Perhaps no figure is more suited to convey this two-ness, this in-betweenness, than the zombie—dead but alive—born of this rupture, the original emblem of the African diaspora. The zombi of Haitian Vodou bears little semblance to the crudely racialized zombie of early American cinema—White Zombie (1932) or Ouanga (1936)—and the zombie as we know it now is completely colorblind, almost disingenuous, with no traces at all of its history in paranoid colonial fictions.
The ghostly possessions Diop reimagines for Atlantics recall the collaborations of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur in their sophisticated symbolism with a touch of the fairy tale: Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is engaged to the wealthy, vapid Omar (Babacar Sylla) but secretly loves Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), a handsome construction worker who, with his colleagues, is owed four months’ wages. One night, Ada and her girlfriends arrive at the beachfront club to rendezvous with these young men (clearly not for the first time), only to discover they have all set a course for Spain in the hopes of securing better prospects. Mysterious happenings follow their abrupt disappearance. On Ada’s wedding night, guests claim to see Souleiman. A fire, with no obvious source, leaves a scorched hole in Ada and Omar’s marital bed. Then, like something out of nocturne folklore, the abandoned women (except Ada) are struck by a curious sweating sickness. When their fever subsides and night falls, they take to the streets barefoot and break into a lavish manor, their eyes milk-white and unseeing, to demand payment from the boss (Diankou Sembene) who cheated their lost men. By now reports that the boat capsized with no survivors have reached the mainland, and it becomes clear that those who perished at sea have returned to wreak their vengeance with fire.
From its genesis, water and fire have been wed in Atlantics: In the 15-minute short, a young Senegalese man recounts his treacherous journey to Spain to friends (one of them played by Diop’s cousin, Alpha) gathered around a beachside fire; sounds of the ocean raging behind them eerily accentuates his tale. It’s a rather intimate, modestly captured preamble compared to the strikingly stylish visuals delivered in the feature by cinematographer Claire Mathon. But thematically, the feature film is a formidable culmination of a dynamic oeuvre. Diop has always seemed patently invested in the project of hybridity (obvious connections might be drawn to her half-Senegalese, half-French background) but in fact she has long proven herself a formally ambidextrous filmmaker. Her shorts frequently synthesize nonfiction and fiction, low-def home-video aesthetics with surrealist elements; in Atlantics she blends social realism with fantasy and horror into a boldly atmospheric production, a lyrical elegy equal parts mythic and phantasmagoric. Kuwaiti artist Fatima Al Qadiri’s haunting score, too, is a dichotomous brew of electro music and Middle Eastern and African expressions that lends the picture an intoxicating alien quality.
Narratively, bifurcation drives not just the symbolism at the film’s core but sharpens present day social realities and gives texture to the emotional stakes. Ada is torn between her allegiance to her conservative Muslim family and friends—like the religiously observant Mariama (Mariama Gassama)—and her attraction to a more secular lifestyle, the kind led by her more charismatic and worldly friends Fanta (Aminata Kane) and Dior (Nicole Sougou). But even they have not completely escaped the mores of their environs: Fanta, at first, attributes her fainting spells to djinn and evil spirits. No one is one thing or the other, Ada must learn, but possessed of many, often contradictory worlds and histories. In that way the film offers a gracious portrait of multifaceted womanhood, self-defined but contextual, powerfully articulated by the supernatural; both Fanta and Mariama own themselves with conviction, and both find themselves vessels for the dead. They belong as much to themselves as they do to the land and its past, which they carry inside them.
This reckoning with the mutable bounds of identity and desire is mappable in Diop’s filmography from the diasporic musings of Big in Vietnam (2009) to adolescence and burgeoning sexuality in Snow Canon (2011). Certainly, the two shorts persuasively hint at a correlation between a national liminality—away from the constraints of assimilation—and the freedom, or catharsis, that might be found there, where the potential for real connection can begin. In these gestures to the neocolonial forces that both shape and stifle selfhood, there lies, of course, a recognizable (and easy to inflate) genealogy between the director and Claire Denis, who first cast the then 27-year-old Diop in 35 Shots of Rum (2008). Diop already boasts an even more compelling cinematic ancestry that is biological. Her father is the noted musician Wasis Diop, and her uncle was the late filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty (whose 1992 film Hyenas was scored by Wasis), director of the landmark classic Touki Bouki (1973), to which Diop herself authored a tender companion piece in A Thousand Suns (Mille soleils, 2013), another lyrical exploration of home and legacy.
Atlantics poignantly continues to excavate these themes of belonging and displacement. A newly empowered Ada looks squarely into the camera, “I am Ada,” she narrates; she has been forged out of exile. But a more somber truth lurks in the margins. In yet another rich doubled movement, those fantasy elements that initially inspired horror go on to serve justice so gratifying—retribution has been exacted, the corrupt brought to their knees, and the unprotected and vulnerable go, not merely unpunished, but rewarded for their trouble—it betrays only more tragedy: such happy endings could only be achieved in a fairy tale.