African Cinema, Film Features

How Mati Diop’s ATLANTICS quietly offers the closure our forbearers never got during slavery

This piece contains spoilers for Atlantics

Did we bury the lede after soaking in Mati Diop’s stunning debut feature film ‘Atlantics’? Rooted in the painful reality of modern sub-Saharan Africa the defining theme of the story for me has grown to be loss; loss of youth, loss of love, loss of dignity, loss of agency loss of being. And the most important character of the story has become the Atlantic Ocean and its glistening but increasingly insidious aura.

As beautiful and calming as the ocean can be, it also remains a gateway to a hellish dimension for some of the youth who brave the violent emptiness in search of work overseas. The basic plot of ‘Atlantics’ conveys this well enough.

We follow in the lonely footprints left in the sand by a young woman named Ada (Mama Sané) who lives on the coast of Dakar, Senegal. She is in love with a boy named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) who disappears via boat to Spain with a group of fellow downtrodden boys from the city.

Souleiman played by Ibrahima Traoré
Souleiman played by Ibrahima Traoré

A lesser vision has would have taken us on board the boat and leaned heavy into Souleiman’s point of view as the horrors of migrants at sea unfold. As someone who spent most of her formative years away from her father’s homeland, Diop wasn’t too keen on leaving the shores of Senegal. She strives to bulid empathy for those who remained behind, for better and worse. In the case of ‘Atlantics’, Diop’s machine for empathy also doubled as a time machine.

As we stared at the ocean with Ada holding onto hope, my mind drifted to the social current that swept through Ghana in 2019; the Year of Return commemorating 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in the United States. The idea that Ghana’s Year of Return was myopic in its ethos has been dissected by more capable hands.

Slaves brought to the United States represented about 3.6 percent of the total number of Africans transported to the New World; around 388,000 people. This was considerably less than the number transported to colonies in the Caribbean or to Brazil, which stood at 4.8 million.

And with the setting of ‘Atlantics’ in mind, of those Africans who arrived in the United States, nearly half came from two regions: Senegambia, which comprises, among others today’s Senegal. The Gambia River, which runs from the Atlantic into Africa, was a key waterway for the slave trade; at the peak of the harrowing trade, about one out of every six West African slaves came from this area.

But there is no denying the collective trauma that bonds black people everywhere. And ‘Atlantics’ views the Atlantic Ocean as a massive totem of this trauma. I remember my only trip to the Elmina Castle some 15 years ago and the weight with which we whispered about the door of no return. I guess now I’ve forgotten what it was actually like to peer through the slim passageway – made narrow to allow for easy headcounts of slaves. I do remember what it was like to stand atop the fort and take in the magnificent view of the ocean, almost certainly mirroring standing of the privileged oppressors who watched on as their our husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, lovers were dehumanised into merchandise.

I can only imagine what it was like for the 12.5 million Africans that were shipped to the New World to walk through various doors of no return, towards the ocean which was essentially a gateway to a hellish dimension. Nearly 11 million of our ancestors survived the torturous journey, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. And for those left behind, the burden of loss and emptiness was their portion, I imagine. Worse still was the fact that there would never be any closure.

Door of No return
The opening to a hellish dimension

Perhaps a more chilling tragedy is the fact that centuries later a flawed world order and failed states on the continent are still driving the best of us to be second class denizens in a hostile new world. But the one difference is that now, we are afforded the grace of closure by one way or the other; be it a letter, text message, postcard or whatnot. And even more poignantly in Diop’s world, even death can’t rob us of the closure our ancestors were cruelly denied.

In the massive supernatural twist to ‘Atlantics’, Souleiman and the other boys who departed for Spain return – but only in spirit. Their trip is ultimately fatal as they die at sea. But such is Diop’s affection for the land that she seeks to close the loop by introducing spirits that possess humans.

It’s a beat she says was inspired by the djinns of Islamic culture. True to the shape of the film, which is at its heart a love story, the spirits she narrows in on here are the “faru rab,” or lover spirits. They belong to dead men and take possession of women’s bodies at night. They also are believed to sometimes communicate with loved ones, and punish those who wronged them.

I felt there was some dissonance at play here in my first viewing of the film.  The idea of the men possessing the women’s bodies has a bleak layer to it; in that even in death or separated by time and space, women were literally still subject to their men. But we come to realise there is nothing overtly oppressive about this gender dynamic. It is in service of a bigger idea.

On the surface, the possessed women walking the streets at night (evoking one of my favorite films of the last decade, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’) initially ushers in some dread. Their milky white eyes reminded me of insidious feminine presences in Nigerian exploitation horror films like ‘Witches’ and ‘The Visitor’ where women dance with the supernatural en route to exacting vengeance on unruly men.

atlantics-still-1-1160x580
Atlantics also proved to be quite the ghost-cum-zombie story

In ‘Atlantics’, the women also make a beeline to an unscrupulous man and in real-time, for a second, I thought they were scorned sex workers. But the film slowly connects to its opening, where Souleiman and some other boys were agitating after working months on an incongruous building project without pay. It is the harsh exploitation and injustice that forces them into the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean.

In death, the men return to haunt the man who denied them their due. This time it’s essentially a demand for reparations for the loved ones left behind in time and space. It culminates in this brilliant scene where the possessed women count the money he pays them at a graveside rendezvous. We joke a lot about how our reward for labour on earth will be in heaven. This scene captures this idea in a darkly funny but hauntingly cruel way.

The core ideas in ‘Atlantics’ really take shape from this point and yes, there are beats about migration, gender and class. I will admit the latter point may emerge as the defining layer of the film with time, especially given the stellar cinematic discourse on class in 2019 with films like ‘Parasite’, ‘Us’ and ‘Knives Out’. But it’s the strong desire for closure that really permeates bone and marrow for me. Even if for just a few sensual minutes, the scars of past oppression are healed as we revel in the blessing of the reunion. 

There is a purpose for this temporary closure. Diop is trying to spark something; like her forebears who carried the torch of, especially militant, African cinema. First off, let’s not forget Ada is fighting another form of oppression as she contends with a marriage she has been forced into. That she stares longingly into the vastness of the Atlantic hoping it comes to represents something warmer, something more comforting is its own form of resistance against history and an entrenched narrative.

And that does happen. The salt of the sea comes to represent desire and intimacy as Ada finally finds herself in Suleiman’s arms again, affirming a bond that runs through her pores. The mystery is stripped away and desire shapes a new reality for us, a reality informed by the supernatural, of course, because that is the only way. “I’ll always taste the salt of your body in the sweat of mine,” she says in one of Diop’s poetic marvels. More importantly, this encounter has her declaring triumph over the future.

This is but Diop’s ultimate desire, that we peer through the door of return and see a gateway to possibilities as endless as the Atlantic; offering fire and most importantly, love.