Author Christina Stead’s aphorism “every love story is a ghost story” is an emotional truth made manifest in director Mati Diop’s feature debut, Atlantics. Though Diop’s narrative engages the convoluted intersections of capital, labor and immigration under the current political moment, at the heart of Atlantics is the story of 17-year-old Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). Through Diop’s lens, viewers glean how the uneasy question of trauma, love and power impacts the central subject; a young, black, middle-class, African woman. Ada’s material circumstances are closely intertwined with most of her relationships and sense of personhood. Her family has arranged an engagement to a wealthy man she does not love in exchange for financial stability. Ada’s future has been mapped out; she is both a hyper-visible commodity and invisible girl. However, the power of Ada’s first love, the power of being truly seen by another, forms the bedrock of her resistance against societal expectations that demand her life and labor. The question of Ada’s identity — beyond her family, lover, fiancé and friends — haunts the film.
Atlantics takes place in a Dakar, Senegal suburb. The story opens on a luxury high-rise construction site, where a crew of young men have not been paid for several months due to the developer’s unethical labor practices. After work, Souleiman (Traore) — one of the leaders of the young men — meets Ada in an abandoned building by the sea. Later that night, Ada sneaks out of her bedroom window to meet Souleiman at their friend’s club. The dance floor is eerily quiet upon Ada’s arrival; green beads of light highlight a silent crowd of forlorn girls. The boys are gone. Souleiman and the other young men from his construction crew left for Spain by boat in hopes of finding work to support their families. Ada is bereft, and sleepwalks through her engagement ceremony. However, a strange occurrence curtails the night’s festivities and the police are called. Ada’s secret romance with Souleiman comes to light under the questions of a young detective. Atlantics’ diegesis surprisingly transforms as many local girls, friends of Ada’s, are struck down by a fever shortly after the engagement party. Diop embeds mysteries within the narrative like a matryoshka doll, as each development propels the film forward into the sensuous province of ghost stories. The narrative’s unfurling path leads to Atlantics’ overriding concerns of justice and love: what do they mean, who has access to them and can there be one without the other?
Diop’s most potent symbol for communicating the potential for justice and the presence of power within this late capitalist moment is the luxury high-rise Souleiman and the other young men build. It is critical to note that the tower is computer-generated. The high-rise does not physically exist as a set, but rather as a mirage-like image that reappears throughout the film. The digital, ephemeral nature of the image positions the building as an apparition of greed and a fantasy of luxury that only exists by way of exploited labor; the development stands at the edge of the young men’s world. In a later scene at a luxury hotel, there is a commercial on a television by a poolside bar for a Muejiza Tower. Muejiza is never confirmed as the complex the young men have built, as such symmetry would be antithetical to the film’s realism. Systems of inequality depend upon the non-descript reproducible opulence of projects, signifiers and landmarks like Muejiza Tower. The economic, racial and social injustices that allow for their creation exist within the same rhizome of power and corruption.
The crew’s journey to Spain, in light of the injustices faced during the tower’s construction, is inspired by Diop’s earlier short film Atlantiques (2009), an evocative, poetic and factual take on immigration from Africa to Europe. In Atlantiques and Atlantics, images of the ocean and moon echo throughout both films — reminders of the world’s vastness and harbingers of its mysteries. The waves and the sun, pulsating like a dripping molten globe, also serve as guideposts; signals for Atlantics’ turn from realism to Diop’s merging of love with ghosts, magic and the supernatural. It is over static shots of the ocean shore and setting sun where the narrative returns to the two young lovers standing at the film’s center: Ada and Souleiman.
Though Ada and Souleiman are forced apart for the majority of Atlantics, they are reunited — in a sense — through the power of female camaraderie. Accompanied by an atmospheric, enveloping score by Fatima Al Qadiri, moving shots of Ada’s friends walking with purpose and palm trees rustling in the night breeze are the most beautiful and cinematic moments within the film. Claire Mathon’s cinematography brings a sublime dreaminess to the shadows of each girl’s bedroom, daily sojourns and proximity to the unyielding waves of the Atlantic. It is the intimacy between Ada and her friend Dior (Nicole Sougou) that bring a sense of warmth and familiarity to Diop’s Dakar. In a scene where Dior braids Ada’s hair, there is a quiet love and naturalness between the two young women that cannot be torn asunder. They are two of the many left behind, those who learn to survive through each other.
Though Atlantics doesn’t effectively balance real-life immigration turmoil with the ghostly poetics of young love, such balance may not be necessary. Atlantics floats between lives, from trauma and death to the power of hope. It’s a film that posits what the world could be, what it should be. Diop’s feature debut is one that embraces the strange, joyous and tender moments that extend beyond boundaries and linear temporalities. Neither love nor life moves in a straight line.
Annette LePique is an arts writer, educator and archivist. Her research interests include cinema, race, illness and the body. She has written for Cleo Film Journal, Another Gaze Feminist Film Journal and Dilettante Army. Annette was a 2017-2018 Research Fellow at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute and is completing her graduate studies at the University of Chicago. She is an active performance artist with a background in dance and music.