ESSAYS Mousse 70
Oceanic Time-Lag: On Mati Diop’s “Atlantics”
by Dora Budor
All history and memory may indeed be spectral, somehow. When director Mati Diop was growing up in Paris, such ghosts populated her understanding of Dakar, a place she knew only through the stories of her Senegalese French family. In 2009 these narratives inspired her to launch a decade-long odyssey that began with the short hybrid documentary film Atlantiques and concluded with the debut feature Atlantics (2019)—the latter a “would-be autobiography,” as she calls it. This sibylline and enigmatic film intermixes new and old forms: ghost story, police procedural, and zombie movie. Like a chimera, Diop’s sensibility is manifold, feminine, monstrous, but it is also timely. Conceived as a response to the state of political crisis—and a reflection of the increasingly fragmented present—the crossbreeding of genres creates something uniquely fantastical. Of this dimension Diop notes in an interview: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”1
But who indeed are the monsters? In Atlantiques, grainy night footage depicts the haunting migratory tales of men Diop met in Dakar. Under her camera’s eye, the nonprofessional actors’ lived experiences blur with oneiric imagery. The resulting effect is of a dissociative temporality that mimics the state of existing in one place while veraciously yearning for a (European) elsewhere. Rightly so, Atlantiques came as an epilogue to Senegal’s migrations piroguière (2005-2006), a phenomenon that has also been described with the ominous phrase Barcelone ou la mort (Barcelona or death).2 During this period, some thirty-eight thousand young African men were driven by irreparable social scarring and collective despair to embark on perilous boat journeys to Spain. Channeling these events, Diop delves into the post-colonial traumas lodged deep in their psyches, which percolate “the most burning desire to flow into the ocean.” This quote, which is mixed in with the actors’ own recollections and spoken as if it were their own, echoes the true accounts of the survivors of the 1816 Medusa shipwreck that took place off the Mauritanian coast when the French attempted to reestablish their colony at Senegal. Interpolation of lived and imagined (or historical) experience is done almost phantasmagorically, which establishes a dynamic, oscillating relationship with the past. Already in this short film, Diop reveals her approach to different temporalities, designating an experience of something analogous to time-sickness—a disorientation in relation to time rather than space. By disrupting the conventions of chronological structure, she builds a larger historical argument for the state of subjective temporal dysphoria, addressing anthropologist Johannes Fabian’s thesis that chronopolitics—the politics of time—constitutes the ideological foundation of geopolitics.
Atlantiques positions Europe as an El Dorado—a magnetic place to long for (often calamitously). The propensity to migrate is therefore depicted not only as a mechanistic result of underdevelopment and poverty, but also as a complex construct of postcolonial trauma and perceived self-accomplishment. Ten years later these motifs reappear in Atlantics, but they amalgamate into a more fantastical composition. Moreover, they center on the act of remaining instead of leaving, as we learn stories of women left behind after the exodus. The monster of Atlantics is now even more sinister: a hyper-object too big to know, too uncontrollable to understand, and too acidic to swallow.
The opening sequence lands on a group of manual laborers working on construction scaffolding next to a cluster of scarab-like shiny towers in the real estate development area of Dakar. The particles of granite dust in the air mixed with the 35mm film grain transform into a shimmering, surreal surface in the burning sun. This glowing “skin” is woven all through the film, becoming darker and darker as it reappears in the extended shots of the ocean, so endless that it almost looks rendered in 3D. Back at the construction site we witness agitated interactions between the workers demanding their three months’ back pay from the company’s administration and the latter’s evasive responses. As a pickup truck drives the young construction worker Souleiman (played by Ibrahima Traoré) and his coworkers away from the site, their solemn mood is interjected with tracking views of the sea and chanting, together with slowly raising fists. More speeding shots as the train cuts violently through the screen, between which we witness the two main actors face to face for the first time. They are the seventeen-year-old Ada (Mama Sané) and Souleiman, who hereafter exchange caresses in a solitary ruin on the beach. Still, a strange reticence is felt between them thanks to two secrets they are unable to share. Souleiman can’t inform Ada of a clandestine plan to depart that very night on a pirogue to Spain, and Ada can’t utter that in ten days she is promised by her family to marry a modou modou, a wealthy and obnoxious businessman named Omar.3 The pressures under which they operate are both imposed in order to satisfy the larger demand of ever-increasing circulation of goods, production, and self-preservation of capital.
From the very start of the film (and reappearing in the back of the cityscapes) is the sight of the postmodern monster-erection of the hotel Muejiza. To each rivulet its own Calatrava!4 Apparently influenced by a similar architectural appearance in Nagisa Ôshima’s The Sun’s Burial (1960) as well as a never-realized project for the first and tallest solar tower in Africa that former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi wanted to build together, it continues blooming and surveilling the city with Metropolis-like ominousness. This is, intentionally, the only 3D-rendered element added to the otherwise analog film—an apparition suffused with a sense of projection, a demonic string of code with a light beaming from the top that serves as a symbol for the future that jars with the overwhelming sights of scrappy and crumbling home interiors everywhere around the city. As the camera carefully glides inside these miserable walls, Ada’s friends and family repeat like a chant endless warnings of poverty and hardships. One group of her friends is fronted by the more traditional, hijab-wearing Mariama; the other is led by Dior, who is more liberal and unafraid to say that they were now using men to their advantage and without qualms (in her script notes Diop describes them as Afro-capitalist neo-feminists). Although seemingly different, Ada’s two groups of female friends seem to agree on one thing: that there is no alternative for a young, inexperienced woman than marriage-assisted upward social mobility.
The constructive bricks of the tower that haunts the city are infused with corruption, which we learn in passing when introduced to pudgy property mogul Ndiaye, coincidentally the same one who owes the young men their back pay. But now, only a few scenes in and with the men already embarked on a pirogue to the sea, the fate of Souleiman and his coworkers is uncertain; after a few days they are presumed dead. Although we never witness any drownings, a disappearance is registered in repetitious shots of the endless ocean views. Ada and her friends can’t stop staring in despair—until, some scenes later, and with all intensity of flu-like sweat of Isaach De Bankolé in Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava (1995), these specters embody quite a different shape, coming to life nocturnally. Initially they scorch the virgin-white wedding bed of Ada’s future home, then they possess the bodies of their ex-lovers to haunt Ndiaye’s nouveau-riche mansion. “Where is our money?” ask the white-eyed girls seated in the dark around his living room. “Thirty-two million. Four months’ wages. We’ve come to warn you. We want our money.” From now on, the camera stays with them.
At this turn, the supernatural collides with the police procedural as officer Diop is called to solve the case. Ada, with all hell breaking loose and after a nauseating scene of a virginity test that Omar’s and her parents force her to undergo, completely cuts ties with her newly wedded husband. No more gifts such as the gold-pink iPhone, which she gladly sells on the street for an old burner and some cash. Likewise, the ghosts of other men continue possessing girls’ bodies. They channel the regional Muslim figure of the djinn, a spirit said to be able to take human and animal forms, which is itself born out of a smokeless fire.
There is more to be said about “spectropolitics,” for which this reading surpasses the theological or the gothic; it is deeply tied to the discourse of loss, mourning, and recovery delineated by trauma studies.5 To be traumatized, per Cathy Caruth, is to be “possessed by the image or event” located in the past, as historical subjects carry “an impossible history within them or they become themselves the symptom of history that they cannot entirely possess.”6 These ghosts’ uncanniness arises from an anachronistic event that has gripped indefinitely the bodies of the women left behind by the pirogue phenomenon: inheriting their debts, both literally and figuratively, and becoming objects of and metaphors for a wounded historical experience. The time of the film keeps exploding; the specters now also introduce nighttime as the active time of the film. While everyone else sleeps, they wake up, expanding the productive time to a 24/7 cycle. Their eyes glow white as if they themselves are inhabited by electricity. These specters’ tendency to put time out of joint introduces an experience of “postcolonial time-lag.”7 The temporal dysphoria underlines the enduring effects of the former, hierarchized relations between center and periphery; West and non-West; and, arguably, European film and its “others.”
The main narrative revolves around themes of romance and spectrality, and yet both are carefully chosen petri dishes in which unsurmountable class differences are grown in all their bloom and effects. Recalling William Shakespeare’s unfortunate story of Romeo and Juliet, it is obvious that in this sociopolitical constellation, not only love, but yes, also love, as a representation of free choice, only finds its resolution in death. The film habitat at large is a manifestation of disparity. Its locations include Dakar’s old city but also its outskirts, the site of a new futuristic project currently being built named Diamniadio Lake City.8 The current forty-eight percent of the population living well below the poverty line is juxtaposed with the city’s overgrowth of über-wealthy enclaves. Dakar, being a major financial center (and home to dozen national and regional banks), is prime ground for the rapidly metastasizing upmarket condos and opulent architectural megaprojects. In Atlantics, the wave that swallows the voyagers is compared to a collapsing building, and in Diop’s preceding short film, Serigne Seck, the main character of Atlantiques, recollects his voyage: “Probably the same feeling you get when trapped in a falling building. You wonder where you are until the impact.” The hardships of navigating conditions of life in an era of ruthless development and the glimmering vista of the sea become interchangeable as feelings of helplessness arise. There is a monster, at sea! The ocean and its vastness as well as the impossibility of grasping its workings are stand-ins for the impossibility and inhumanity of ruthless and rampant capitalist development.
Among the films that have marked 2019 thus far, the theme of class warfare, in all its forms and localized iterations, has been a leitmotif: from the Brazilian village that has disappeared from the map to become a hunting ground for a group of bloodthirsty Americans on a Udo Kier–led killing spree in Kleber Mendonça
Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s satire Bacurau (2019), to the Korean lower-upper-class mobility war (with all its Ballardian architectural theatrics) of Bong Joon-ho’s horror-comedy Parasite (2019). Unlike in the aforementioned examples, however, in Atlantics there is neither sense nor sign that class stratification is just a farce or a construct. Even with all its fantastical elements, the most striking impression of the film is that it feels modest, intimate, and even realistic. This is a direct reflection of conditions that Diop’s working process establishes, which clearly follows her concerns as well as her ethics. Real people with similar social backgrounds were cast for the characters in the film; Traoré was a real construction worker, Dior an owner of a bar, and Sane a local found accidentaly after seven months of searching for a lead actress. These actors were initiated and trained through acting workshops with Ibrahima M’Baye, who is one of the rare experienced actors in the film. The film was shot in Wolof, a Senegalese local language that is also Sane’s native language, so Diop had to find a way to work with it despite only speaking French. Fatima Al Qadiri’s serpentine music score situates it equally between old Senegalese sacred chants, the local musical landscape, and current club music. Although the film quotes some American cinematic references (John Carpenter’s and Bill Gunn’s influence is recognizable), it is also strongly located within the history of Senegalese cinema9.
In the first few minutes of the film we observe Ada from the back as she tells Souleiman on the beach: “You’re just watching the ocean—you’re not even looking at me.” The gaze is time-lagged, redirected. On the contrary, in the very last shot, Diop finds a way to arm her main character with a sense of immediacy, independence, and agency. Portrayed allusively in the extended shot, Sane stares directly toward us, eyes wide open into the iris of the camera. The scene, framed almost as a test shot, grapples with the history of non-neutral politics of lighting (for example “Shirley cards,” which were made to calibrate color on film and privileged white female skin).10 We can imagine Sane speaking to a whole history of representation in Western cinema. Highlighted by the bleached, shining background, she says, “I am Ada. Ada, to whom the future belongs.” And we have no other choice than to believe her.
1. A loose translation of Antonio Gramsci as popularized by Slavoj Žižek, which renders the original (“In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms”) as “Now is the time of monsters.” Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 275–76; Slavoj Žižek, “A Permanent Economic Emergency,” New Left Review, no. 64 (2010), available at https://newleftreview.org/issues/II64/articles/slavoj-zizek-a-permanent-economic-emergency.
2. For a historical outline of Senegalese migratory travel and mobility see Stefano degli Uberti, “Victims of Their Fantasies or Heroes for a Day?,” Cahiers d’études africaines (2014): 213–14, http://journals.openedition.org/etudesafricaines/17599.
3. Modou modou is a Wolof expression for a Senegalese émigré to Europe aspiring to wealth and flaunting their socioeconomic status when back in the homeland.
4. The reference is to Rem Koolhaas’s seminal text on excess and overgrowth of architecture. This quote is the ending of a paragraph that describes the overtly grotesque projects by “starchitects”: “Railway stations unfold like iron butterflies, airports glisten like cyclopic dewdrops, bridges span often negligible banks like grotesquely enlarged versions of the harp.” Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October 100 (2002): 175–190.
5. María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, “Spectropolitics: Ghosts of the Global Contemporary,” in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, ed. María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 24–26.
6. Cathy Caruth, “Introduction,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 5.
7. Homi Bhabha’s theorization, via Frantz Fanon’s writing. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).
8. Diamniadio is the biggest project of President Macky Sall’s Emerging Senegal Plan, an ambitious set of initiatives “aiming at getting Senegal onto the road to development by 2035.” Projects like Diamniadio Lake City would hardly be affordable to any Senegalese worker, or even a middle-class inhabitant. Ilaria Maria Sala, “Senegal Is Building a Futuristic City to Deal with Its Congestion Problems,” Quartz Africa, August 29, 2018, https://qz.com/africa/1352926/will-senegals-diamniadio-city-solve-dakars-problems/.
9. One notable example includes a scene of a herd at the beginning of the film that is reminiscent of the famous Senegalese filmmaker (and Diop’s uncle) Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973).
10. I draw here from Richard Dyer, “Lighting for Whiteness,” in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), 89.
Dora Budor (b. 1984, Zagreb) is based in New York. She has had recent solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel (2019); 80WSE, New York (2018); and the Swiss Institute, New York (2015). She has an upcoming solo show at Kunsthaus Bregenz (2020). Her work has been presented in group exhibitions at such venues as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; David Roberts Art Foundation, London; Swiss Institute, New York; Kunsthaus Biel; La Panacée Montpellier; Museum Fridericianum, Kassel; Halle für Kunst und Medien, Graz; and K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong; as well as the 9th Berlin Biennale; the Vienna Biennale; Art Encounters Timișoara 2017; the 13th Baltic Triennial; and the 16th Istanbul Biennial. She was a recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant in 2014, a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant in 2018, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019.