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ScreenTalks Archive: Mati Diop on Atlantics

A young woman, Ada, looks directly into the camera in Mati Diop's Atlantics
12 Oct 2021
30 min listen

This week, writer, director and artist Mati Diop speaks to poet Be Manzini about her debut feature film, Atlantics.

Atlantics tells the story of Ada, a young woman living in Dakar, whose construction worker lover Suleiman is lost at sea. This loss sets in motion a series of mysterious events in her community. Here, Diop discusses why finding the right cast members, including Mame Bineta Sane as Ada and Ibrahima Traoré as Souleiman was so important to the film. Atlantics was Diop's debut feature film, and with it, she made history, becoming the first black female filmmaker to have a film premiere and competition at Cannes. 

If you haven't seen Atlantics, we recommend you give it a watch first before listening. 

The Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast is presented by Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media. Listen to more episodes on: 

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‘I know what it is to be chosen by somebody to become a character, how it often resonates with your own life or a story. It puts you in a quite vulnerable place, not negatively. ‘


Ellen E Jones: Welcome to the Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast. On this podcast we like to give listeners access to the kind of magic moments that happened behind the Barbican cinemas' doors. This Q&A with the singular Mati Diop is full of such moments. She's in discussion with poet Be Manzini and the pair go into some detail about what happens in her 2019 film Atlantics, so this is probably one you want to save until later if you haven't yet seen it. 

But if you have seen it, you'll know Atlantics tells the story of Ada, a young woman living in Dakar, whose construction worker lover Suleiman is lost at sea. This loss sets in motion a series of mysterious events in her community. Here Diop discusses why finding the right cast members, including Mame Bineta Sane as Ada and Ibrahima Traoré as Souleiman was so important to the film. Atlantics was Diop's debut feature film, and with it, she made history, becoming the first Black female filmmaker to have a film premiere in competition at Cannes. 

But Diop, who was born and raised in France, was known to the film world before Atlantics. Not just as the niece of prominent Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose films include Touki Bouki and Hyènes, but also as an actress who first started in Claire Denise' 2008 film, 35 Shots of Rum. The history of French colonial rule in Senegal from the mid 19th century to independence in 1960, is important background here, both to Diop's life as a woman of mixed heritage and to her film. It helps explain why for Diop, the notion of shooting her film in French, or any language other than Wolof is so unthinkable. Despite this deep connection to place, it was also important to do that the writing happened at a distance. Aided by her co-writer Olivier Demangel, a French man who never set foot in Dakar. 

You'll hear Diop insist several times that she's a visual artist and not a verbal one. 
And yet the poetry that runs through this discussion doesn't come only from Be Manzini, who delivers her poetic response to Atlantic's at the very end. Diop also reveals herself to have a very lyrical way of describing her visual poem of a film. I'm Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks with Mati Diop, writer and director of Atlantics.

Be Manzini: Who loved the film? Like everybody, of course, because it's phenomenal. I wanted to start our conversation with looking at the writing process, and craft, I was so taken for those of you who don't know, I'm a poet, I'll be sharing a poetic response to the film for you guys later. But I was really so taken by the beauty of it, especially the poem between Ada and Souleiman, which went:

'I knew you would be back. It could only be you. I always taste the salt of your body in the sweats of mine. Souleiman, how beautiful you are. I saw you in the enormous wave which consumed us. All I saw was your eyes and your tears. I felt your weeping, dragging me to the shore.'

So beautiful, honestly. Goosebumps. I have goosebumps reading it. But it made me think about where were you when you were writing, when you're crafting?

MD: I'm going to disappoint you so much. These are not my words. But it's beautiful that you start with these words because they are the last words that were written. It was written at the very end of the of the editing. And in the script, I think it was the scene which was the most minimal in terms of, it was just Souleiman, and Ada. Souleiman enters the room and they embrace and they make love and there was already the vision of Souleiman in the mirror. The scene was like, I knew what what was going to happen in terms of action, but, and I knew that I was going to, to need Souleiman to talk to her. 

It was impossible for me to write myself these words, I wrote all the dialogues in the film except this, because I think it was too much of a sacred place for me. And I think I was putting expectation on these words that were too high. And I was a bit blinded by my own ambition of these words. And I don't know I felt that, first - I'm not poet, I'm a visual artist, and I write dialogues and stuff, but I don't write poems, you know, I couldn't do that, I think. And I needed the words to come from another body, from another voice. And I didn't record that during the shooting. And at the very, very, very, very end of the editing, I was finally ready to have these words entering the film. So you have to imagine that for the whole editing, this scene was not like that. And so what I did is that I proposed to a writer I know called Violaine Huisman, who is French. I just had read her novel. And she's very close with my editor. She also has a very intense relationship with the Atlantic. She saw the movie and I thought of her also because her reaction, was one of the first spectator of the film. And her reactions and her words on the film really, really gave me a lot of strength to go on, on the editing. And so she saw it at spoke to her for maybe an hour of what I wanted to hear through this dialogue, but that I was not able to, to speak out. 

I could hear it, I could hear it, I could feel it. So I gave her a bunch of directions, also told her about this poem from Derek Walcott called The Sea is History. We talked about also erotic poems. And yeah, and so that's it, we hung up the phone. And two days later, she sent that to me. And when I discovered it, it was really like a vertigo, because I really had the feeling that these words were inside the film since even before I started writing the film. I think it's one of the most beautiful collaboration. 

Of course, there's plenty of incredible collaboration in this film with Fatima Al Qadiri, with the actor, with each single artist and technician who made that film with me, but this collaboration with Violaine was incredible because she literally, I felt that they were my words, but came from her and I could never have written them. But she couldn't have written them outside the film. So I thought that this was just an extremely incredible and magical collaboration. 

BM: So she was inspired by words. Tell us a little bit about your writing process. So you wrote all of the dialogue? Where did you start writing? Was it at home in France? Or was it in Senegal?

MD:  No, no, no, I, after I shot Atlantics, the short film, in 2009, I was pretty haunted by the atmosphere that I felt at Dakar at that time, which was pretty ghosty. And even though I had another feature in mind, which was supposed to happen in the French Alps, something was telling me that I needed to dedicate a feature film to that chapter. So the film is in my mind since 2009. And when I finally decided to go for that feature, which was in 2012, just after the Dakar Spring, the Dakar Spring happened a couple of months after the Arab Spring. And so when I thought, and when I met my co writer, Olivier Demangel, I had already treatment, I don't really remember where I wrote in Paris. And so the original idea was pretty clear. It was the idea of having the spirits of the boys who perished at sea come back to haunt the neighbourhood, and to haunt the girls. 

It was already very clear that it was going to be a ghost film, the love story was already very central. But at that time, Ada was not that clear, it was still more, I wanted to film a group of girls, I hadn't decided yet it was going to really be focused on Ada, and then I met Olivier. After reading my treatments, he talked to me about Solaris, the novel that Tarkovsky adapted, and I really liked that he thought of that, we started to work. And what I decided was not to go to Dakar to write the film. And I also liked the fact that Olivier had nothing to do with Dakar, he's a script writer. I'm not. I mean, I write all my films, but I don't consider myself as a script writer, I make films, of course, I write them, but he has all these techniques, and he handles the dramaturgy rules and everything. And I have a much more intuitive approach to writing. 

I liked the idea that he didn't know Dakar and I didn't want to write over there because I knew that Dakar is a very, very magnetic place and I get inspired too much there. And so the story would have taken so many, you know, directions if I had written in Dakar, and I had experienced enough things, and shot already two films there, I knew exactly what I wanted to portray. And I thought it was great that it was going to be a fantasy film, a tale, a very universal tale to save distance, you know, from the very intense, real material. 

We wrote for three years, I was even, I did this residency in Massachusetts, in Cambridge. So you can't be more far away from Dakar, it was a bit schizophrenic sometimes, but at least, I had a lot of distance. And also, when I came back, when I went to Dakar, after the first draft, I knew even more what I wanted to get inspired by, which was actually, I started to cast a group of girls. And the first idea of this casting was not to cast the actress, but to cast girls, to make them talk about subjects such as boys, marriage, sex, religion, independency, you know, all these subjects, and I wanted to, to hear them talk about these to make sure I was in phase with the girls of today. And so it helped me a lot to rewrite the dialogues. And from there, so I just went once in Dakar, I also did some scouting, I went to Thiaroye, the neighbourhood where the film is shot. And that's it. And then I continued the writing. And until it was solid enough to find some financement. It was very difficult to write this script, because a lot of temporalities, dimensions to find unity in so much going on. It was quite a crazy journey. 

BM: And the majority of it is in Wolof, I'm interested in why you made that decision. And going back a little bit to to the casting room, beautiful, beautiful cast, and what a joy and a treat to see dark skinned, beautiful African people living, you know, out their lives in an ordinary and romantic way on many levels, even though it's a, it's a supernatural, surrealist piece. So I just wondered about some of those decisions that you made. 

MD: Wolof is the language people speak there. 

BM: But in terms of, you could have gone more down the French route, I guess, is what I mean. 

MD: I mean. No way, no, no, no, no, that's something I never. I mean, it's still incredible that to think that it's an option to film in Dakar in French.


MD: And it happened. It happened not very long time ago. This kills me like when I see short films in Dakar shot by Senegalese people in French, I am like, wow, that's, that's really, okay. We're here. Okay. And it says, a lot. 

So, for me, it was a very evident natural gesture. But obviously, it was a very clear statement. And then the casting, as most of the characters were quite young in the film, I knew that I was not going to look for professional actors, because they are not really professional actors of this age in Dakar, and even if there were, I don't think I would have gone that direction. 

I've always had a quite documentary guessing approach in most of my films. In that one, it was important to keep it because the documentary aspect of the film was more than just a way to work but I don't know a moral and an ethical approach to telling the story because I need the people who embody the characters to be pretty much connected to the social realities of the character. For example, for the lover of Adam, Souleiman, played by Ibrahima Traoré, I found him in, I went to find him in a work construction place. He was working there. And I was going there at the end of the day when all the workers go out. And I found him in one of these work construction sites and he you know, I really need people who will act to, to have experienced the some realities of the character. And at some point to know better than I do, about the characters are written. 

I've conceived, imagined them, but they have experienced. It's the same for Dior, the friend of Ada, I found her in a club. I did a lot a lot of clubs to find some girls.[Laughter]

Yeah, and Ada, I took me seven months to find her. She resisted a long time and, but it was very at the end it was a bit we were about to delay the shooting and which was pretty scary. And I found her a day I was not looking for anymore. I was scouting, in Thiaroye. And I was walking along the rails, I saw her coming out of a house, and then coming in again, like in a subliminal apparition.. But it was good to be able to at the end to, to choose all the characters of her life without her because it gave me a lot of space to choose them from my own sensitivity. Like if I was Ada, my friends would be Amina, Mariama and Dior, I would have fallen in love with with Ibrahima, or Souleiman. I think it happened for a reason that she arrived at the very, very last end, because all the relationships were between her, her close relationships were already there it was, yeah, it was interesting. And then we rehearsed. I wrote the dialogues in French, and we adapted them to Wolof with them. So they find their own words and they get more engaged in the process.

BM: We're going to ask one more question before I open it up to the audience. We've spoken about casting actors, your acting experience, how has that imbued or inspired the way that you direct?

MD: I went through that experience, it's like I went on the other side of the mirror. So I know how, I know what it is to be chosen by somebody to become a character, how it often resonates with your own life or a story. 

It puts you in a quite vulnerable place, not negatively. But I mean, you can feel a bit naked. And the importance to have somebody in front of you who, who drives you and who and who really, really, really trusts you and mostly that you can trust like 100% trust. And if you don't feel that the person who is looking at you and shows you is 100% sure that you are the character I think it can't work. You know, it needs I think it needs a total trust to work, it's like a sacred pact, you know, but it's mostly about finding the right person. I think that directing actors is mostly about finding the right actor, the right person, it's like 80-90% of it. I'm not the first director who says that, but I've understood that by being chosen, for example, by Claire Denis in 35 Shots of Rum, and I like how the more I direct, the more I consider it as a same gesture than writing and acting, it's one and same thing. At the end, I think.

BM: So I'm sure we have some questions.

Q1: Hi, I just wanted to ask you more about the process itself, just from the initial stage when you came up with the concept, and the treatment. How long did that process take until you've finished and made the final film? So when you got the original idea to making the final film, how long was that process?

MD: Forever. It took forever. No, and also, especially because it was my first feature writing experience. Even though my previous experience as writing script were quite ambitious to like A Thousand Suns that I directed before was pretty pretty complex to write, also, but this one.... So like I was saying, I think this film has been in my mind, since forever, really. Because besides, even before I shot the first short film, I feel it was, it's also, this film has a lot this room has a lot to do with my own story. 

So yeah, it took a very abstract amount of time, but technically it took us between three and four years to write it, which is I mean, it doesn't mean anything, it can feel long, but for a film like that, for a feature I think it's normal, but doesn't really matter how long it takes. There were just so many, like I was starting to say so many different temporalities to deal with, like the fact to begin the film with characters that are going to disappear very fast, but that we have to feel attached to them to make sure that we will miss Souleiman, to set the geopolitical social dynamic in a couple of minutes to make you believe about the love story in only one scene. And then the temporality of the loss, the way reality of Ada shifts as soon as Souleiman disappears. 

I was very interested in working on how does this affect her intimacy, her relationship with time with, and mostly with herself and the reality around the wedding she was about to accept, etc, etc. And then the fantasy dimension could not begin before the boys at sea would perish because of the shipwreck. So their spirits start to come back and haunt, and possess the girls and the investigator. And so the fantasy could not arrive before the death of the boys, but shouldn't start too late either. So it was very, very difficult to and also, like I was telling you, it took me a while to decide if whether I wanted to do a group, a girl group gang film, or to follow still one character. Because at the beginning, I really wanted to film a group of girls. And also, I was very attached to the ideas of filming these boys more, almost like if I didn't want them to leave too early. 

Because at the very, very, very first stage, the film was going to be about the boys, until I realised that it had to be not about the boys going there, but about the girls going through that, their departure and that loss. And then the question of who, whose body Souleiman was going to process, was very important. At the beginning, I really wanted Souleiman to possess Dior. I was very interested in the fact that Ada and Dior would make love one night through Souleiman, but unfortunately, I think I couldn't have proposed this to a Senegalese audience, because it's still a very homophobic country. 

And also, I think, even here, sometimes you feel like, homosexuality is considered still as a subject, you know, I could almost hear the wrong debates it was going to create. And I didn't want to miss the main, not subject, but the main reason why I made this film, but I would have loved that, because I think he would have bringing another dimension. But then, when I decided that Souleiman was not only going to come back to make love to Ada, but also to ruin the wedding, and the fire, then the investigation arrived in the film, there had to be an investigator. And we thought it was interesting that it was this man who will be possessed by Souleiman, for many, many reasons. And for me, it was the most exciting character of the film at the end. For a long time, there was a kind of rivalry between Ada and Isa, because I almost had Isa become the first character of the film. But then I went into something more classic, like the love story at the centre. And, and this is only part of all the other complex things to to deal with.

BM: We have time for one more question. Your hand went up first, I believe it's the last one. So no pressure, make it good.

Q2: Hi, Matthew. Firstly, it was an amazing movie. So congratulations. 

MD: Thank you. 

Q2: Do you consider it a responsibility to portray Africa and Africans from an African perspective?

MD: Yeah, huge. Yes. It's both an urge, a need, desire. And yeah, responsibility, because I was myself very much disturbed and hurt and sick of how Africa has been for so long, de-possessed by her own, its own story, its own image, its representation, its own narrative, that as a mixed woman and daughter of the diaspora, and also with the legacy of the films of my uncle, I was extremely sensitive to that conflict, and also all kind of post-colonialist questions. I'm especially sensitive and touched by it. Also when I started to engage my cinema in Dakar, in Senegal, in Africa, at that time, I felt, which was not necessarily true, but I felt that African cinema in general was a bit like, that it was not really there anymore. 

I had this very strong, I've been very marked by some African films, some of my uncle, Moustapha Alassane and others, but when I started to make films in Africa, except some films, I felt that the continent was not really expressing itself anymore. So to go back to Dakar and start to make films there was almost like a like, oooh, it has to exist again. 

Black faces can't disappear from our screens, and from our imagination, and so much stories has to be told from there. And yeah, the responsibility is huge for me, I think that's also why I feel that making films in Dakar is so challenging, because what enters and exits the frame, you know, it's, you have to, to know exactly what's not entering, and what you're framing, and I feel like almost each shots, now the language has to be very, very much precise, because it's like, bit like repairing, you know, repairing situation, people, faces that has been so so misrepresented or badly represented that it's like almost to redraw the faces of a place, you know, it's also why I wanted each character to be so singular, that each character of the film have, really,  its own personality that to have them even more vibrant, and universal. 

Because it's not only what I shoot, that has to write, or that has to be very precise, but also have the audience be able to displace itself and to re-consider this territory, these people and these faces from another perspective. 

For some people, it's easy, because it's stories that they've always, that they were waiting for, you know, the film is also addressed to this audience, but for another kind of audience, you really have to, yeah, make some people reconsider things, values, situations and have them engage in situations they think they are disconnected with. But they're not. 

The film takes place in a very, very, very precise place. But it's, it's very global too, its I think it's, I address myself to many different kinds of audiences. 

BM: Thank you. 


MD: Thank you very much. Merci. You wanted to read something?

BM: We're not quite at the end guys. I'm going to share started with poetry. So I'm going to share a poem that was inspired by your beautiful work. Thank you, Bird's Eye View for commissioning it. It's called The Veil. 


Thank you.

EEJ: Thank you for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Mati Diop. We hope you appreciated Diop's many insights not just into her film, but into the art of filmmaking in general. 

If you'd like to hear more such conversations and support arts at the Barbican, please rate and subscribe via Apple podcasts, Acast or your usual podcast providers or visit And we're always keen to hear from listeners - you can find us on social media @barbicancentre. Barbican ScreenTalks Archive is presented by me Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane long for Loftus Media. 

We'll be back next time with Director Kim Longinotto discussing her 2019 documentary Shooting the Mafia about the Sicilian mob and the woman who dared to photograph them. Until then, be well and goodbye

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