Numéro met up with Mati Diop one summer morning, not far fromwhere she grew up in Paris’s 12th arrondissement. The 37-year-old was finally able to breathe for the first time in months after producing her first feature, Atlantique, which debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The chaos of screenings and interviews on the Croisette ended in triumph: her very first movie at the festival was awarded the Grand Prix, just behind the unreachable Palme d’or that went to Parasite. Diop’s was a breakthrough that was as swift as it was unexpected, and she’s only slowly coming to terms with it. “I went through a period of extreme shock. It’s going to take some time before I can settle back down, because everything hap- pened so fast, even if it’s positive. Finishing a film is already enor- mously emotional; what happened afterwards was just crazy!” Long silences and hesitations cadence her nonetheless limpid speech, as though she wants to weigh her words and slow down the tempo, enveloping her audience in the same way she does in Atlantique. Set in Dakar (Diop’s father’s birthplace), it tells the story of workers who, when their boss stops paying them, decide to emigrate to Europe; lost at sea, they come back to haunt other bodies, most of them female.
Diop has pulled off the tour de force of making a film that is atonce fantastic and political – it deals with questions of colonization and the never-ending legacy of slavery, as well as the violence of contemporary migrations – and also a hypnotic object, lulled by floating amorous encounters and captivating shots of the ocean. “The political, fantastic and social dimensions are not sepa- rated. From the outset, Atlantique is both a cinematic object and an internal personal journey. The ocean as a character is among the first visions I had: showing this immense mass of water as a living magnetic force that sucks the young down into its depths before spitting them back out again. The fantastic dimension, with the revenants, is inherent in reality as I saw it in Dakar, because the supernatural, the sacred and the invisible are part of Senegalese culture. My own personal sensibility, which is fairly gothic and romantic, encountered that culture. And I often give the elements an important role in my films.” This is filmmaking that is at once consoling and engaged in today’s struggles, as though the zombies represented the most appropriate myths for recounting the world. “In times of crisis, the fantastic is a genre that’s used to touch a political dimension. We’re going through a period of fracture, so it’s hardly surprising. It makes me think of the famous phrase attributed to Antonio Gramsci: ‘The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.’”