Atlantics (2019) film still courtesy of Netflix.




A NIGHT’S WORK

a review of Mati Diop’s Atlantics
by Juliana Feliciano Reyes



In an early scene of Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019), the camera stays fixed on the boys. The boys—that is, workers revealed to be boys—packed in the wagon of a truck, riding in the open air on the way back from a worksite to which they’ll never return. There’s Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), their emergent leader, lost in thought, as his crew jostles about and tries to get him to play along. This image of them is fuzzy, slowed down, as if already a memory, a warning that we’ll lose them. From another angle, we see the futuristic tower they’ve been building for the last four months. It pierces the air, gleaming, alien. We don’t know what’s inside, only that they’ve built it—and haven’t been paid for their labor, despite their efforts to demand what they’re due.


And then, by the time night falls on the coast of Dakar, as Souleiman’s lover, Ada (Mame Bineta Sanee), sneaks out of her bedroom window to meet him, they’re gone. It’s their disappearance, and subsequent return, that haunts the characters in Diop’s feature debut. It’s a love story and a coming-of-age tale that suddenly gives way to a zombie flick, though it feels almost inappropriate to use the term “zombie flick” to describe Atlantics, with its languorous, foreboding shots of the ocean for which it’s named, and its utter lack of camp. But maybe that’s the point. By flipping the conventions of the genre on its head, by aligning us with the zombies themselves, Diop forces us to consider whose voices have been erased from the record, whose humanity has been made one-dimensional.


It’s not long after the boys disappear—on a boat to Spain, to seek work, like so many before them—that the haunting begins. Ada’s friends, both the “good” devout girls and the secular ones they scorn, the ones who smoke cigarettes and frequent the beach nightclub, start to feel faint as the night approaches. By nightfall, they’re traveling in a horde, seemingly possessed, to a mansion. The girls (the boys?) drape themselves over the opulent living room, the wide staircase; they are unafraid. They have come to the boss’s house to demand their wages.  




Atlantics (2019) film stills courtesy of Netflix.




“By flipping the conventions of the genre on its head, by aligning us with the zombies themselves, Diop forces us to consider whose voices have been erased from the record, whose humanity has been made one-dimensional.”




Diop, who grew up in Paris to a French mother and Senegalese father, has said she was “seduced” by the djinn, Islamic spirits, and specifically, the faru rab, lover spirits of Senegalese folklore that take possession of women’s bodies at night. But her take on the spirits here is less straightforward. Yes, it’s rude, a violation—like what’s a girl gotta do to get a good night’s sleep around here? But this possession is also a dance, a negotiation: an honoring of the female form and the fear it can strike, while also a suggestion of two lovers conspiring, losing track of where one ends and the other begins.


In Atlantics, it’s not a mysterious virus that transforms the girls into zombies. Instead, they’re infected by collective trauma—the nagging sense that home can never be enough, not under this system. They understand why the boys are drawn to Spain. They know what it is to be compelled by duty, to be possessed even. And they know they might have to lose their brothers, their lovers, in the process. It’s a reality they brace for, one they’re almost resigned to.


This is the kind of trauma these girls can’t escape, Diop seems to say, even if they didn’t know these specific boys or what it was like to love them. They are wise; they know this story. And so, the girls rise at night to avenge the boys—its own form of labor, one for which they can never truly be paid—to set their souls at ease.







Watch a conversation between Atlantics composer Fatima Al Qadiri, King Britt, and Doreen St-Felix: