In her stunning feature filmmaking debut, French-Senegalese director Mati Diop explores a feminist take on the African immigrant narrative. Told through the eyes of a young woman named Ada (Mama Sané) living on the coast of Dakar, “Atlantics” explores the plight of the women and girls left behind by the men who risk their lives in search of work overseas. Much to her parents’ delight, Ada is engaged to a rich man, though she is in love with a boy named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). But when he disappears via boat to Spain with a group of boys from the town, Ada is left wondering if she will ever see him again. When a fire conspicuously erupts on the night of her wedding, a friend swears she sees Souleiman lurking in the shadows.
“Atlantics” takes a supernatural turn in its second act, thrillingly upending the grounded character study Diop so carefully builds in the film’s absorbing opening. As her girlfriends become afflicted with a mysterious fever, it becomes increasingly clear that the spirits of the lost boys are inhabiting the girls’ bodies. Diop depicts the possessed girls with white eyes, slow and deliberate gaits, and adopting a relaxed, semi-masculine physicality.
In interviews, Diop has said she was inspired by the djinns of Islamic culture, supernatural spirits that can possess human forms. An early scene in the film introduces the concept. A subset of djinns specific to Senegal are “faru rab,” or lover spirits, which are spirits of men who take possession of women’s bodies at night. They also are believed to sometimes communicate with loved ones, and punish those who wronged them. In the film, they represent the young men who left and died at sea.
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As the majority of the population in Senegal are Muslim, this was undoubtedly Diop’s way of incorporating local cultural folklore into the film. But the concept is fascinating on many levels. The idea of men possessing women’s bodies, and the very direct way Diop dramatizes and visualizes it, is a literal representation of the way men control and police women’s bodies. Diop saturates her film in symbols of the life options, or lack thereof, for a working class woman in Senegal: Ada’s arranged marriage, the way her friends fawn over the freedom she will enjoy as a rich man’s wife, and a harrowing trip to the doctor to check that her hymen is still intact — all paint the picture quite vividly.
But the subversive gender dynamics at play also provide a fascinating backdrop. By using traditional folklore as a major plot point in her film, Diop both honors Senegalese culture and gently exposes its queer implications. In other parlances, the idea of a man’s spirit in a woman’s body has often been used to describe the way a transgender person might feel. This is certainly not the original intention of the “faru rab,” which is more often used as a way to dissuade women from dressing provocatively for fear that they will become possessed.
In Diop’s imagining, however, Souleiman is a benevolent possessive spirit. His actions may be motivated by jealousy, like setting the fire on her wedding night, but he seems to be acting solely for Ada’s benefit, as he knows she does not wish to marry. Their final love scene, passed through another body, is tender and sumptuous. He merely returned to consummate their love, something she wanted as well.
The possession myth also situates “Atlantics” in the contemporary genre canon, and all that it has grown to encompass in recent years. While the film is a far cry from “The Exorcist,” “Paranormal Activity,” or other classics of the demonic possession horror, it rides the line of the genre just enough to be considered a cousin — if a distant one. While possession films usually end with the possessed person going mad and terrorizing their loved ones, Diop is gentle with her characters. In her final sex scene with Souleiman’s spirit, Ada leaves with a sense of peace and resolution. Souleiman, and his chosen human body, is gone in the morning, suggesting his spirit is also at rest.
Diop’s handling of the migration narrative from a feminist perspective, all within the gorgeous package of a haunting mood piece and stunning feature debut, deserves all the praise it has garnered. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes, was bought up quickly by Netflix, and has been chosen as Senegal’s official submission for the Best International Feature Academy Award. In its poeticism and spiritual roots, the film also plumbs the depths of its source myths to unearth a dazzling patchwork of ideas about gender, sexuality, and cultural mores.