Atlantiques (dir. Mati Diop, 2009) watches like poetry. It is more mood than plot, filled with slow, haunting images. The fifteen-minute short is Diop’s predecessor to her first feature-film, Atlantique (2019). Though the two films differ in content––her feature-film has a much more structured plot, and its events succeed those of her short––Atlantiques can be seen as a condensation of the same eerie mood that permeates its extended version.
The images Diop captures are not fabricated in a fictional sense. They are documentary images, taken of Senegalese men (one of which is her cousin) discussing the perilous migration to Spain––dubbed “pirogue phenomenon”, which at its peak in 2005-2006, saw thousands of migrants travel by boat to Europe in search of jobs. Since this peak, almost eighty men have departed from Thiaroye-du-mer, a village in the southeast coast of Dakar, to be lost at sea.
Atlantiques chronicles the phenomenon’s “Barça mba barzakh” ethos of desperation––now a saying in Wolof, meaning “Barcelona or death”––and its profoundly painful impact on the women who care for these men.
Though Atlantiques is documentary, its experimental nature lends it a fictional feel. The film’s imagery is subtle; the lack of narrative increases the weight of the visuals and their accompanying sounds. The bulk of the shots focus on Serigne (Serigne Seck) who sits on a beach with two friends, crowding around a small campfire. Preceding imagery prime viewers’ experience of their conversation: first, shots of two cogs rotating against one another––apparently a reel-to-reel tape recorder, though the darkness of the images obscures its form. The gears spin at a steady pace and an unidentified voice begins narrating: “We were sailing and encountered a phenomenon feared by most. The Sirman, waves as high as tall buildings….We were shocked by the winds and waves. Probably the same feeling you get when trapped in a falling building. You wonder where you are until the impact.” Reflective light (the reflective surface is never shone) flashes moving streaks of light onto the cogs, their rhythmic appearances sync with the droning background noise of the ocean.
The ocean’s constant drone, a sound paradoxically calming and chilling (made so by the narration), becomes the film’s soundtrack––it’s unnerving presence stitching the images together. The title sequence shows us the ocean, a single shot in which a pirogue, just barely visible, slowly makes its way across the screen. Talking with his friends, Serigne expresses his desire to try once more to reach Europe, to which his friends protest. Nonetheless, he confirms his desire: “If I must die, so be it. You know why? There’s nothing but dust in my pockets.” Cut; a man wipes the dust off a tombstone: “It’s written that Serigne died on December 23rd, 2008.”
Atlantiques focuses more on the men who disappear at sea than in its full-length version, which has been hailed as a feminist “ghost story”. But even in the brief fifteen minute runtime, Diop’s feminist undertones still shine through. After we are informed of Serigne’s passing, Diop focuses on a woman who wipes her tears away. We stay with her for an entire minute as she tries to keep her pain at bay. She attempts to avoid the gaze of the camera, turning her attention elsewhere. But she returns again to the camera, staring directly at us. A cut, and then back to the campfire: Serigne is before us once again, staring into the camera, as if looking back at her. Diop centers female pain––specifically the tensions of an unresolved grief, a simultaneous disconnect from their deaths and a perpetual experience of their presence.
The world Diop creates is highly emotional. Yet it feels not quite real, a certain strangeness––rooted in the ghost-like presence of the men and the looming grief that surrounds them––bestows upon it a dream-like quality. Her poetic imagery co-occurs with the insertion of poetic language, which encapsulates this dreamscape: “This fever is a nightly invader, that strikes the patient during deep sleep. He jumps off his bed and runs to the bridge. There, he believes seeing beyond the waves, trees, forests, flowered meadows. His joy erupts in thousand exclamations. He experiences the most burning desire to flow into the ocean.”
*Atlantiques (2009) is available to stream on the Criterion Channel. Atlantique (2019) is available to stream on Netflix.
Pattison, Matthew. “Anywhere But Here: Close-Up on Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantiques’ and ‘Snow Canon’.” March 21, 2018. Mubi. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/anywhere-but-here-close-up-on-mati-diop-s-atlantiques-and-snow-canon
Sicinski, Michael. “‘You Don’t Have a Home Until You Leave’: Mati Diop’s Short Films.” February 26, 2020. Criterion.
Mayault, Isabelle. July 22, 2017. “Saving Senegal’s sons from vanishing in European seas.”Aljazeera.