“That interrupted dream really broke my heart” recalls the disembodied voice of a young man in Atlantiques (2009), Mati Diop’s breakout short film. Ten years later, his words feel hauntingly relevant to the lives of Ada and Souleiman (Mama Sané and Ibrahima Traoré), ill-fated young lovers whose disparate but inextricable paths guide Diop’s first feature, Atlantics. While her short focused on the fate of young Senegalese men who make the treacherous journey to Europe by boat, in search of opportunity that has eluded them at home, Diop’s latest is anchored in the lives of those they leave behind — specifically, the women who love them.
Set in the suburbs of Dakar, Atlantics opens on a dusty city road. The skeletal structure of a half-finished building looms in the background as young men toil around the construction site. A herd of cattle crosses the road, an understated nod to the canonical Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéty (Diop’s uncle), which also focused on young Senegalese lovers dreaming of a better life in Europe. Though Diop is upfront about the fact that she was never close to her famous relative — she was raised in Paris, and was just a child when he passed away — the surrealist influence of Touki Bouki looms large in several of her films, most notably 2013’s Mille Soleils. In fact, in preparation for that short, she organized screenings of Touki Bouki in the streets of Dakar to get feedback from young people about how they were being affected by the increasingly deadly flow of migration. These conversations allowed her to reconnect with a place she hadn’t been back to since childhood.
Marketed as a “ghost love story,” Atlantics grew out of Diop’s attempts to memorialize the death of Serigne Seck, a young man whose account of migrating to Europe forms the backbone of Atlantiques. Among the many questions she posed to herself when she realized she wanted to make a feature version of the short was how to continue a film when its main character is gone. Diop’s approach included casting Seck’s sister Sané to play the lead role of Ada, who is directly impacted by the lives lost to the treacheries of migration — a fitting example of art imitating life. This positions Atlantics as a rare glimpse into the lives of women left to pick up the pieces after tragedy.
Specters appear throughout the film, as passionate scenes of Ada and Souleiman together give way to the loss she experiences after he disappears into the night, setting forth in a rickety pirogue bound for Spain like so many young men who have gone (and died) before him. That Ada’s marriage to the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla) has already been arranged and is well underway only complicates her attempts to grieve. At its heart, Atlantics is a story about agency and the struggle to chart one’s own path, free of societal constraints and expectations about what one should do. The glimmering vista of the ocean appears frequently throughout the film, reminding us of both infinite possibility and deadly limitations.
Similarly, even in his physical absence, Souleiman’s spirit is ever-present. Ada’s community is soon haunted by various jinn — shapeshifting spirits of smokeless fire, part of al-Ghaib (“the unseen”) in the Qur’an. Mysterious beings, jinn are neither good nor evil, and can choose to help or hurt. They are believed by some to be capable of communicating with, loving, sleeping with, or even possessing humans. In Atlantics, jinn are lingering presences. A metaphor for a generation lost to watery graves and detention centers, they often communicate with loved ones, and deliver swift retribution to various bad actors.
Much like the mutable presence of grief, the jinn remind us of what could have been, and their attempts to meddle with humans drive some of the most empowering and tender scenes in the film. Increasingly, fantastical elements emerge and set the stage for multiple simultaneous struggles for the control of women’s minds and bodies. The narrative occasionally stumbles, and includes cliché lines, such as the summation of a detective investigating various jinn-related whodunits, along with Ada’s final lines — reminders that Diop’s work is strongest when more experimental in form. Even still, her attempts to render the stories of migration through a broader, almost feminist lens offer a prescient meditation on who actually gets to forge their — or rather, her — own path.