Underrated/Overlooked: SJ Chiro on Atlantics

The writer-director makes the case for Mati Diop's unique Cannes-winning debut feature being among the very best movies of the year.

Cannes 2019 saw a major breakthrough: For the first time in the history of the festival, a black woman director had a film in competition. Yeah, you read that right: For the first time in the history of this major international film festival, a film by a black woman was screened in competition.

The film was Atlantics (or Atlantiques), the debut feature by writer-director Mati Diop. Fans of Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums) may remember her as that film’s female lead. Now 37, she has been acting and directing her own short films since the age of 20.

Diop, who was born and lives in France but is of Senegalese descent, made Atlantics in Senegal. The film was inspired by a short documentary she made in 2009, also called Atlantiques. That film, also shot in Senegal, focused on the intense desire of young Senegalese men to leave Senegal for Europe (specifically Spain). In a recent interview, Diop said she was haunted by the words of the main character of that documentary: “A lot of kids at that time were so obsessed that it felt like they were no longer here — and he told me that when you decide to leave, it means you are already dead. That marked me a lot, and as a filmmaker I projected my gothic and romantic sensibility onto it.” At first, she thought the feature film would center around the boys, as the documentary had, but soon she realized that she was more interested in telling the story of the girls who were left behind. Following this gut feeling changed the film she thought she was going to make. Focusing on the women fulfilled her wish of honoring the lost youth of Senegal, but in the feature film she honors the “living lost” – the ones left behind.

Atlantics opens with an extended sequence where we meet a group of men who have been laboring hard – unpaid, we find out – for weeks, building an enormous, modern skyscraper. The modern structure is jarringly out of place, rising out of a field of dust. It is clear these men are building for the wealthy alone; their sweat will build something that, when finished, they will only be allowed to view from afar. This visually sets up the dire economic disparity which hangs like a shadow over the entire story. This opening sequence put me in mind of the opening of Cassevettes’ A Woman Under the Influence – hardworking, dusty, sweaty laborers being loaded into trucks like cattle to be driven away from the job site.

But that’s where I’ll stop comparing Diop to other filmmakers. Atlantics has a vibe and a feel, a look and a rhythm all its own. The pulling back and the crashing forward of the ocean provides a relentless backbeat for our heroine, Ada, whose secret love is one of the young, unpaid workers. Ada is engaged to a rich, powerful playboy but, to the consternation of her parents, she doesn’t like him or want to marry him. I won’t disclose any more of the plot because you should watch this film at your earliest convenience, and it’s best if you know as little about it as possible.

In the end, power emerges from the sea. The men and women combine in a most unexpected way to demand justice from the unsavory, wealthy businessman-developer who has kept wages from honest, hardworking people at tremendous human cost.

That synopsis doesn’t begin to convey the beauty, elegance and resonance of this haunting, multi-faceted film. Atlantics is at once a story of young love, a tale of forbidden love, a family drama, an economic treatise, an intimate sociological study of a seaside suburb of Dakar, a detective mystery, and even a ghost story. Atlantics examines the inhumanity of economics in its many facets. The tenderness and subtlety with which Diop treats the people and the situations in the film creates a deeply specific world which gently invites you in, then traps you, just as the main character, Ada, is trapped.

The film’s cinematographer, Claire Mathon (who also shot Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire), utilized two different cameras to create the look of Atlantics. Mathon used the VariCam 35 to create her dark, foggy night shots, where eerie light – including an omnipresent green laser strobe at a low-rent club – reflects off dark skin, and the ocean becomes otherworldly. The day shots, drenched in hot, dusty light were captured by the RED Epic, giving the daytime images, in her words, a “dreamy quality.”

In Atlantics, Diop tells a complex contemporary story with honesty and authenticity. She addresses the life of a young woman living between old customs and a coming modernity; feeling the pull of economic and sexual freedom, while fighting – and then bending to – the humiliating demands of her father and her husband-to-be. The specificity and honesty of Ada’s character and situation makes her a deeply sympathetic figure.

Though Atlantics is the Senegalese submission to the Academy Awards for Best International Film this year and won the Grand Prix at Cannes, the runner-up to the Palme d’Or (which went to Parasite), it has not been as widely discussed or celebrated as it should have been.

Many of the big awards contenders have a massive publicity machine behind them – sometimes the budget for publicity is almost as much as that of the film itself – and they are able to generate huge buzz this way. It’s depressing to think about how money plays such a role in how a film gets talked about and seen, regardless of merit. The inhumanity of economics, again.

I saw Atlantics at the Orcas Island Film Festival in October. After the screening, I emerged from this dark, compelling, completely enveloping, otherworldly story into the blinding sunlight, disoriented and feeling like the fictional life I’d been a part of for just under two hours was more real and tangible than the daylight of the Pacific Northwest. Afterward, I recommended Atlantics to friends, most of whom had never heard of it, and followed the progress of the film. After a small theatrical release, Atlantics was released on Netflix in late November 2019; in neither instance was it promoted with any fanfare. I can only hope people will discover it on Netflix, although I wish more people could see it on the big screen. I’m also still holding out hope that Atlantics will be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (it has already made the 10-film shortlist), which would inevitably bring it much more attention.

Regardless of its short-term success, I hope Atlantics will take its place in the conversation as one of the great films of 2019, where it belongs.

SJ Chiro is a Seattle filmmaker. After many short films, her debut feature, Lane 1974, premiered at SXSW 2017 and was distributed by the Orchard. Her Second feature, East of the Mountains, starring Tom Skerritt and Mira Sorvino, is in postproduction. SJ is a recent member of the DGA.