Movie review – Atlantics: What is Lost in Movement? – Kemi Falodun

There is a valley with a plank placed across it for travellers to cross over to the other side. The plank is however slender, such that not only must one leave their belongings behind, they have to remove their clothes as well. You cross in the hope that, at the other end, you will find clothes of travellers coming in the opposite direction. Perhaps the clothes are more expensive than what you left behind. Perhaps they are rags. You never know. Hence the name: Lost or Gain Valley.

In Atlantics, the recently released feature by French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop, the Atlantic Ocean is the valley – that which must be conquered to experience life at the other end. As with the many tales in Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the “Lost or Gain Valley” explores the themes of migration, complexities in relationships, surrealism, and fantastical fiction.

Atlantics opens in a construction site filled with teenage boys febrile with boisterous energy, demanding they be paid. The noise is soon replaced with a calm; the viewers follow the plights and quotidian activities of 17-year-old Ada (Mama Sane) as she navigates life in Dakar. She’s in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), but has been promised to another man. The wedding is drawing close. In a sequence, Ada takes a walk with her lover, they sit and watch the ocean. The loneliness of the water mirrors what’s on the other side.

“You’re just watching the ocean. You’re not looking at me,” she says.

Sometimes the ocean roars, full of wonders and possibilities; other times it glimmers in the sun, quiet and melancholic, a metaphor for longing and limitations of movement. Ada appears to be the protagonist but it’s as though Diop wants us to look deeper, to see that in fact, the central character is the ocean – the hope and the obstacle. And in this way, as the film progresses, we are confronted by small and jarring surprises.

Young Senegalese who have come to terms with the reality that creating wealth or even a decent life is unattainable for them in their fatherland, pursue another life in Spain. They embark on a tumultuous journey out into the Atlantic Ocean. This reality is not lost on Souleiman and his friends. One day, as Ada’s family prepares to receive her groom, Souleiman gets on a boat and heads out into the ocean.

Migration is a global phenomenon. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” notes Warsan Shire. And oftentimes, one is too concerned about running away from the shark that one does not see the wall of waves about to crash over their boat. In the end, people end up swallowed in some way. How many make it out alive?

Like the Lost or Gain Valley, Atlantics asks: what is lost in movement?

Most stories of migration are focused on those who left. The reader/viewer follows the life of the migrant – their experiences of loneliness, dissociation, culture shock, racism. Everything is different. However, little attention is paid to those who are left behind. Their brothers and lovers, mothers and friends. What about the people trying to pick up the pieces, the one nursing a sick relative, the one still labouring under the sun, unpaid? What about the chores reassigned, responsibilities reshuffled? In Atlantics, Diop focuses her lens on those who remain. Herein lies her deliberate attempt to treat the subject of migration in a way that’s different from what is usually portrayed in the mass media.

Atlantics is a pointer to the shedding one does to survive in other worlds. In 2008, Diop visited Senegal, her father’s birthplace. From interactions with the citizens, she discovered the debilitating effect of (undocumented) migration. “I could feel a viral phenomenon,” she says. “Like: ‘My big brother’s doing it, this kid from the neighbourhood is doing it, so I’m gonna do it, too.’ I was shocked by the magnetic feeling I had from it… I started to watch the ocean. I was not looking at it like I used to; it became like a grave.” Following the trip, she produced a short film titled Atlantiques. Eleven years later, she released her first feature, Atlantics.
The themes of movement and the politics of belonging are not alien to Diop’s family. Her uncle, the legendary filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty explored these themes in his work. Touki Bouki (1973), for instance, documents a couple’s desire to move to Paris, a land they imagine will bring them prosperity.

Atlantics is a fine, unusual film – strange, in fact, but not in a way that creeps you out. It makes you question your idea of the self and what is left of it after some life-changing encounters. Written by Diop and Olivier Demangel, the film is rooted in fantasy and the writers’ imaginative flair shines forth. As the folkloric motif is evident in Tutuola’s work, Diop explores what it means to exist in liminal spaces. What begins as a love story soon morphs into strange illnesses, scenes of graveyards, mysterious arsons, police investigations. Those who departed return. They inhabit the bodies of those they left behind and demand their money from the gluttonous people in positions of power. Though they no longer exist in the same form as when they rendered their services, still, they come back for what belongs to them. There is anger, violence and presence of zombie-like creatures.

Diop was the first black female filmmaker to compete in the history of Cannes. In 2019, Atlantics won the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious prize (Bong Joon-Ho won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, making him the first South Korean to win it). It’s almost inconceivable that in the award’s 72-year history, it’s the first time a black woman is in competition. It’s also interesting, perhaps ironic, that the film is about migration and, in some way, the impact of colonialism.

Atlantics is a reminder that the war isn’t only against systemic racial oppression, but also against classism. It re-imagines an outcome for when the oppressed finally come together to confront their oppressor. But when is it too late?

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