French-Senegalese filmmaker and actress Mati Diop has been considered a talent to watch ever since she made her on-screen debut in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. She has starred in movies including Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer and directed prize-winning shorts and thoughtful documentaries, including 2013’s A Thousand Suns.
Diop’s Cannes Competition entry Atlantics, her narrative feature debut, follows a 17-year-old woman whose lover leaves Senegal by sea in hope of a better future. It is based on her short from 2009.
“The short film of 2009 focuses on the story of Serigne, a young man who tells of his crossing by sea from Senegal to Spain, in search of a better future. Through his story, I wanted to evoke the reality of an entire generation of young Senegalese,” she says. “If some made it to Spain, thousands perished at sea. This tragedy left a great mark on Senegal. It also left a mark on me. I then wanted to write a film from the point of view of the woman who remains. It became the story of Ada, a young girl who loses her lover at sea and who will have to make a rediscovery of herself.”
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“My first major challenge was for the Senegalese actors to recognize themselves in the history I wrote,” she explains about the process. “I had confidence in my film project but needed the approval of people who live within the daily realities of the country; feeling that my vision and observations were well aligned with the reality of what they experience, and the environment that surrounds them; feeling that I wasn’t making a movie by myself in my head. In order to be able to dream a film, I need to make sure it’s real first.
“I like films with a supernatural element, but ones rooted in social or political reality,” she continues. “It was very reassuring to feel that despite all the time I have spent outside the country of my origin, I have preserved a deep connection to this place.”
The film was five years in the making. Finding her leads Ndeye Binta Sane, Amadou Am and Ibrahima Traore was another major challenge.
“Not only finding them in the streets like I did, but to train them, and make them credible actors and magnificent heroes,” she explains. “After months of intense casting, I finally found the rare pearls I was looking for. Through our collective work we rose to the challenge. I am very proud of that and I think I can say that a new generation of actors is born.”
Before she completed the film she spoke to her mentor Claire Denis. “When I told her that Atlantics was officially accepted into Cannes, she expressed joy, pride and confidence,” recalls Diop. “It moved me a lot because my experience with her greatly influenced me as a filmmaker and the woman I became. Claire sees through things and beings. She’s an immense artist. Her films are so deep. I’ve always felt very close to them and it is a great source of pride to have been one of her actresses. I hope we will work together again.”
Now Diop is making Cannes history by becoming the first black, female director to have a film in Competition.
“From a symbolic point of view, this is major, and I can’t pretend it isn’t,” she admits. “I am well aware of the rarity of women competing in Cannes, especially non-white women. It’s sad and still hard to believe that a black woman has never been to the competition so far, in 2019, but here we are. This is both a bitter observation because it’s time that it should stop being an exception, and at the same time, it tells us that the lines are moving.”
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