The barrier-breaking ‘Atlantics’ heralds Mati Diop’s arrival

NEW YORK (AP) — Mati Diop has always lived in Paris but as a French-Senegalese woman whose family is from Dakar, she’s long been acutely conscious of another, unlived existence for herself in Africa. And it’s there that her life as a filmmaker has largely resided.

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Diop spent nine months in Senegal making her first feature film “Atlantics,” a movie that, itself, has a ghostly pull between distant shores. Like several of the short films Diop made leading up to her debut, “Atlantics” was motivated by a need in her to reconnect to Dakar, and to her Africanity.

“There were many moments I felt that I’m doing this film to live the life I wasn’t able to live,” Diop says. “When you are mixed or connected to two cultures, two places, there’s a living where you are and there’s the other life where you aren’t. I really needed to invest in this other life.”

“Atlantics,” which opens in select theaters Friday and begins streaming on Netflix Nov. 29, is about a young woman in Dakar named Ada (Mama Sané) whose lover, Souilman (Ibrahima Traoré), drowns at sea on a boat taking many of the area’s young men — workers who have been unpaid for months — to Europe. Such tragic migrations are far from uncommon in West Africa, but Diop turns her focus toward the women left behind.

Souileiman returns as a ghost, and “Atlantics,” too, transforms into something shape-shifting and spectral, sweeping grand themes of migration, exploitation and pain into a magically real ghost story.

Diop, in a recent interview at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan alongside a seldom-used translator, said she conceived of “Atlantics” as a redrawing of myth. “It’s really the odyssey of Penelope and not of Ulysses,” she says. “The rest of the girls are like a chorus.”

“Atlantics” is Senegal’s submission to the Academy Awards’ international film award, and if it were nominated, would mark the first Oscar nod for Senegal. The film is already much decorated. In May, it was awarded the Grand Prix, or runner-up, at the Cannes Film Festival. Jury member Elle Fanning said “Atlantics” “touched us in our hearts.”

Diop previously starred in the French director Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” and her earlier work as a director had already put her on the map. (The Museum of Modern Art added her short “A Thousand Suns” to its collection in 2016.)

But “Atlantics” confirms Diop as a major new voice, an arrival that’s been heralded throughout the fall festival circuit. The New York Film Festival, which occasioned Diop’s recent trip to New York, said the film builds on the promise “and then some” of her shorts with a drama that “in its crystalline empathy, humanity, and political outrage, confirms the arrival of a major talent.”

The esteem for “Atlantics” has also made Diop into a history-making figure. At Cannes, she became the first black woman with a film in the 73-year-old festival’s illustrious Palme d’Or competition. Diop, having then just emerged from seven months of editing, was caught off guard by the attention.

“Here in the U.S., I’m seen and considered as a black woman, but in France we don’t use the same words to identify. In France, people never called me a black woman,” says Diop. “When I saw that in the papers, I was a bit amused. In France, we are very late in the process of calling things what they are. I felt a confusion. I wasn’t confused but people were confused at me.”

Diop most bristled at how she was being labeled.

“I’m in a very hard position to define myself. I’m not white. I’m not black. I’m in between. I feel like my identity is undefinable,” Diop says. “Now people want to make me a black feminist. But I was always making movies and I was always a black girl. I didn’t wait for anyone to label me. I just felt it was a bit superficial, a bit opportunistic.

“I don’t want to be simplified.”

Diop instead speaks through her art, which is a kind of family tradition. She is the daughter of Senegalese jazz musician Wasis Diop and the niece of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, a pioneering figure in African cinema. “Atlantics” bares echoes of her uncle’s landmark 1972 film “Touki Bouki,” about a Senegalese couple who dream of emigrating to Paris. Diop’s “A Thousand Suns” explored the film’s legacy and how it reverberates in modern Senegal.

“He affirmed a strong cinematic language as a response to post-colonialism. I feel it so strongly in his films. It has nothing to do with me being a niece,” says Diop. “I don’t even imagine cinema without his films. I don’t know how my relationship with Africa, with my own identity as a mixed girl would have been without his films.”

Diop, 37, frequently visited Senegal as a child. “The way I film Dakar has a lot to do with my very first relationship to the city,” she says. But between the ages 12-22, she didn’t. When she began making films, she steadily returned.

Denis, the revered arthouse filmmaker of “Beau Travail” and the post-colonial “White Material,” has also been, Diop, says “fundamental in my path.” Denis attended the Cannes premiere of “Atlantics” and told Barry Jenkins earlier this year of Diop and her film: “She doesn’t need me, but I felt, this is something I’m proud of.”

“Atlantics” grew out of a 2009 short film, so it’s been a lengthy process. Now, Diop anticipates, she’ll enter “a new phase.” But the reception to “Atlantics,” she says, has given her a feeling of liberation.

“I have the feeling the film is bringing down barriers,” she says. “The film proposes an experience that people were missing without knowing they were missing it. It’s the same need that led me to make the film. The film was made for things I lacked. And now people are thanking me for offering them what they were also lacking.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP