Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


At the Key West Film Festival, I was part of a panel of film critics judging this year’s entries. We gave the Critics Prize to a Senegalese film by a first-time director, a supernatural romance titled “Atlantics.”

If you didn’t catch it at the Film Festival, here’s your chance to see it next Thursday as part of Tropic Cinema’s Cinematheque Series.

“Atlantics” tells the story of Ada, a 17-year-old woman secretly mourning the disappearance of her boyfriend. He is one of a group of construction workers who set out to sea looking for a better future after not being paid for their work on a building project in Dakar. Ada was engaged to marry someone else, but Souleiman had claimed her heart.

The mystery wafts in like a breeze from the sea when the women left behind start coming down with a mysterious fever and shuffling zombie-like men demand their pay from the owner of the unfinished tower. Has Souleiman and his friends returned?

Mati Diop is a French actress (“35 Shots of Rum”) turned filmmaker. Aside from a few shorts, “Atlantics” is her first feature-length undertaking. She scored a bulls-eye with it. She became the first black female director to have her film premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. “Atlantics” won the Grand Prize.

The film is a fictional adaptation of Diop’s earlier documentary short (“Atlantiques”). The doc followed two friends from Senegal as they made a life-threatening boat crossing to Europe.

In 2008, she had traveled to Senegal, the birthplace of her father, to make a short film about migration. Her cousin introduced her to some friends who were “thinking about crossing,” undertaking the dangerous boat journey up the African coast to Spain.

One young man told her that “when you decide to cross the ocean, it means that you’re already dead.” After that, she said, “I started to watch the ocean. I was not looking at it like I used to; it became like a grave.”

As the Guardian describes it, “Now, 11 years on, the French director … has poured the otherworldly impressions of that 2008 visit into a work of odd, fantastical fiction. What starts out as a portrait of a group of young Senegalese laborers risking their lives to reach Europe soon gives way to a bubbly, edgy teen movie centered on a young girl called Ada (played by Mame Benita Sané). It then transforms into a cop caper/whodunnit. Finally the film mutates into a supernatural horror, replete with spooky graveyards, mystery illnesses, paranormal arson, and white-eyed zombie-like creatures dead set on revenge.”

“Atlantics” will be Senegal’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. The film is backed by Netflix.

“My own personal story is: I’m a daughter of an immigrant, who traveled to France right after shooting Touki Bouki with his brother,” says the 37-yeat-old director. Her uncle, also a filmmaker, told that story in “Touki Bouki,” a 1973 film that also made it to Cannes.

Born in France to a French mother, Diop says making “Atlantics” was a way of experiencing “the African adolescence that I hadn’t lived.”

“As a mixed-race girl, there’s always a visible and invisible side of you; there’s a place you inhabit and place you desert,” she says. “How does the place that you don’t live in influence you? … My family history is made of migration; it’s something that’s part of my own complexity.”

That’s reflected in Mati Diop’s work. “Atlantics” may be an otherworldly, genre-bending fantasy, but at its heart the film is a tribute to migrants, those people compelled to leave their homes “at an unfathomable cost.”

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