“Don’t make me sound like a bitch.” Mati Diop says this to me before I leave our interview at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto. She’s smiling, but she’s not kidding. The French-Senegalese director and I have just had a wide-ranging 45-minute conversation (her publicist tried to wrap us at 15, but Diop refused) about her Cannes Grand Prix–winning film Atlantics, which also premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Her first feature film (she's been making short films and docs since 2004) is a haunting drama about love, grief and literal ghosts.
Mame Sané plays Ada, a 17-year-old living in Dakar after the man she loves, Souleiman, a poor construction worker, sails to Europe in search of prosperity. Souleiman and his co-workers never return alive. They haunt the women they leave behind. Told in Wolof and French, Atlantics is a stunning, mythical rumination on the real stories of young migrants who leave countries like Senegal on the dangerous sea voyage (according to The Guardian, over 30,000 people have died). It’s one of the most talked-about and critically-lauded international films of the year.
Diop and I cover everything from the film’s reception, to the paranormal, to her experience at Cannes as the first Black woman to compete for the coveted Palme d'Or, and the first to win the Grand Prix, the festival’s second-highest honour. It’s the latter topic that has Diop worried she’ll come across as callous since, as grateful as she is, she’s also wrestling with the spotlight on her race. Weaving in and out of English and her native French, Diop tells me she’s still processing what it means to make history and to have to constantly talk about her Blackness. I can tell she’s still a bit uneasy with the subject, but she’s also candid and relatable. She’s not reading a PR-proofed script. She’s just a director trying to make sense of her identity in the industry while also promoting her movie. I don’t think she has to worry she’ll “sound like a bitch” (except maybe for the not-so-subtle shot she throws at Beyoncé). In fact, based on how good Atlantics is (the film hits Netflix this Friday), I'd say the only thing Diop has to worry about is the inevitable flood of accolades and press coming her way.
Wow. This is the first time I’ve heard that.
They write, “It’s a beautiful movie that stirs away from the usual clichés of African women and migrants.” How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel very happy. It’s amazing to have worked so hard and so long for your vision. Film is a way to fight against a kind of representation that you think is wrong and needs to be corrected — especially in places of the world that were colonized and that still suffer from having been dispossessed by their own stories.
Why did you decide to include the supernatural element?
For me, I knew from very early that my film was going to be dedicated to the youth who lost their lives at sea. It was ultimately going to be a ghost movie because it was about the fact that they leave no trace. They become faceless. It’s like a tragedy without a name. It’s even more haunting because these women did not know if [their men] were going to come back or not. It’s a nightmare. I think what shocked me about this period was the absence of value that was given to these men. Western mass media were talking about it through the perspective of only economics and statistics and I felt that even a lot of people in Senegal didn’t measure the tragedy seriously enough.
You were up for the biggest award at Cannes and became the first Black woman to be in that position. All the headlines were, “Mati Diop, First Black Woman to…” Did that make you think more about your place in this industry? And does it affect your work at all?
It’s true that in Cannes I was the first Black woman [in the running for the Palme d'Or] and it took a lot of space in the conversation. I should accept that it does have to do with me personally, but it mostly has to do with the global situation. I’m a complex person I have a complex story and I’m not presumable to one single thing. I’m Black, I’m white, I’m both. Being mixed is a very rich but complex experience. I think my African [identity] is embodied by this film I made and the setting, the character and story. I build a relationship with my origins by going there, doing things there, having African characters, and making sure Africa is represented the way I think it should be. For me that’s the battle, not saying, “Hey, I’m Black and I’m proud.” Am I making sense?
Yes, I understand. You’re saying that being Black is not the one thing that defines you.
Right. I think before making this film I hadn’t really been challenged about that topic. I’m having a hard time letting people define me. I know who I am and if you see my film, it’s pretty clear what my relationship to Africa is and being a Black woman is expressed through the film.
Going back to the review I read to you earlier, I think it is pretty clear. People are getting it. They’re seeing themselves reflected through your work because it’s authentic.
For me, that’s the answer. When it comes to white people telling me I’m Black, I don’t care, to be honest. I don’t know what they’re talking about when a group of white journalists [at Cannes] focus only on that. When I saw “first Black woman” in the newspaper I was really like, “Yeah, sure.” But a lot of friends of friends were like, “Aren’t you annoyed?” I was like, “Why would I be? I’m the first Black woman [to win this prize], so why would it be wrong that everybody talks about that?” But people should not stop there. I was invited to talk about that more than to talk about my film.
So you felt like conversations about your race overshadowed your work at Cannes? That’s kind of the unfortunate burden of being first, isn’t it?
Yes, it took more importance than the film. And you feel that the whole thing is a bit out of control, you know? Also, Black can be a little reductive because it’s not just about being Black. I’m half French, half Senegalese. I’m not uncomfortable with being called the first Black woman at all, it’s just a tricky thing.
Blackness isn’t a monolith.
As a Black girl or mixed girl, I had to go through this deconstruction. There’s a moment when I had to face my own Blackness and realize I was very shaped by the white world and that was not okay. I was straightening my hair, I was doing all these crazy things.
There’s so much we have to unlearn.
Yes, I was taught to hate these parts of me. It’s crazy what we’ve had to rebuild in us, and I think it’s extremely powerful that we are finally able to reconnect with our origins and learn to be proud of it and learn to explore it. That’s what I did with my first feature. I started making movies in Africa when nobody gave a shit about Africa. When Africa was not fashionable. Africa was the least place and topic that would interest anybody. In the past five years, a lot of Black Americans started to be proud of their Blackness, and now it’s become a business, a commodity. For me, it’s a huge marketing project. Maybe I’m just cynical.
I think you’re right to be cynical on some level. A lot of people agree that there is this commodification of Blackness.
Maybe Beyoncé is being honest when she says, “Oh I have something to say [about my Blackness] and about Africa,” but she’s also a businesswoman. I don’t want to use my film or my own personal process to suddenly make a brand of it.
Isn’t it okay to do both? To explore your identity and make money at the same time? Especially if you are Black, and it’s your own culture.
I mean, sure, why not? I can’t judge. But my history is very personal, and all my work is about deconstructing how things have been perceived by Western clichés and stereotypes. I can’t say it’s not honest [for other artists] because maybe at the beginning it is. This subject is very tricky because I’m very happy that there is this new Black activism and I think it’s very important but on the other hand, it takes different forms that I’m less interested by. It also becomes too obsessional.
I think it goes back to you being the first. People are going to be obsessed with that fact and make you answer questions like these. As a Black woman who interviews Black women a lot, I would love to just talk about your film and how Blackness informs the work, not just about being Black in this industry. I would love to get past it, but we’re just not past it yet.
Absolutely. Blackness was neglected for a long time and it needs to be redefined and re-explored. You don’t necessarily feel like you want to carry it all on your shoulder. I think that’s what I’m feeling. I carried my own movie and it’s good, that’s enough. What you just said is a good way to resume our conversation. We wish it wasn’t so much about the colour of our skin and being Black. We wish we were over it but we’re so not over it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Atlantics is playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox now and drops on Netflix Friday.