The West never sees the Middle Eastern and African world as what it really is. There is an inbred generalization that is almost impossible to forget. Even when you know that it is false, your mind will not always have actual images to put next to that thesis. Godard’s La Livre d’ Image dedicates a chapter to the violence of representation, pointing out how it’s nearly impossible for Westerners to represent cultures that are not Western, grounded in the inherent gap in both language and perception of other cultures. The fact that Africa is often seen as a monolithic setting, something homogeneous, even though it’s a diverse, culturally rich continent, should be proof enough of a general unwillingness to destroy and actively tackle images of prejudice in broad parts of society. In consequence, it’s no wonder there is so little compassion towards thousands of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, who are in search of a better life. They are seen as one.
In Mati Diop’s ravishing Atlantique, a group of construction workers are repeatedly denied their money for their work on a giant futuristic building. They struggle to support their families and loved ones and set out to sea to find better opportunities. The women remain, one of them being Ada. She is in love with the young Souleiman, but has to face her arranged marriage after Souleiman disappears with the others. What unfolds from here is both a ghost story and a love story from the perspectives of the women left behind.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon’s femme gaze is a natural extension of Diop’s vision, her recent work (among others Portrait de la jeune fille en feu and L’inconnu du lac) is full of gorgeous visual fresco and Atlantique is no exception. Luminous faces are captured in stunning spheres of light. The images are haunted by the elements — wind blows through Ada’s hair and the sea seems to be an everpresent constant, equally a promise while also a big question. Aesthetically speaking, Diop fuels inspiration by filmmaker and ex-collaborator Claire Denis into her very own form. It might just be the most gorgeous film of the year, and its vibrant, breezy imagery makes an irreversible impression. It’s a knockout from all artistic standpoints, but Diop connects them with pure cinematic magic.
While living in France and thus in the West herself, Diop comes from a quite well-regarded Senegalese family, not exactly the setting with which the characters of the film can identify. Despite that, her film might legitimately be one of the first films explicitly involving refugees, that seems on equal footing with the people portrayed; it acknowledges that they had lives and hopes, instead of seeing their situation as monolithic and disastrous. The men have had their identities ripped away as soon as they become nameless bodies on a ship. But in Dakar, back in their homeland, they are still alive. Diop doesn’t search for reasons or facts. Instead, she interrogates life as a source of mystery, passion, and impulsivity. When it crosses into the supernatural, it’s a seamless transition, without pretense or break in style.
Unforced, the film achieves a contemporary feeling, while being in touch with its cultural identity. It tackles questions of self-determination from a perspective that is neither Western-washed nor vain. It’s a stunning achievement, that establishes Mati Diop as a critical and beautiful voice.
Atlantique is streaming now on Netflix.