Before making history last year as the first black woman director to compete at Cannes, Mati Diop had been spending the previous ten years articulating her unique vision in a series of five acclaimed short films. The praise Diop has received for her debut feature, Atlantics (2019), offers a fine opportunity to revisit those deft, diverse, and strange earlier works, which explore many of the same aesthetic, cultural, and political issues that animate Atlantics. From a documentary featurette about the great Senegalese film Touki bouki, to a story of two girls exploring their burgeoning desires, to a film about a director who goes AWOL and takes the narrative with her, Diop’s shorts are characterized by a preference for mood over plot, and a driving curiosity about the limits of genre and form. But they are also precise inquiries into the representation of “others”—postcolonial subjects, children, the poor—who are often marginalized by mainstream cinema history.
Diop had a substantial reputation as a director prior to her feature. Her short films have screened extensively at festivals, often in avant-garde or experimental showcases. There is certainly no doubt that Atlantics is the cinematic statement she had been working toward. A radical, poetic enjambment of concerns both postcolonial and supernatural, this Senegalese ghost story depicts a group of dead men who inexplicably rematerialize from the sea that claimed them. But although we can certainly see elements of her earlier work refracted through Atlantics, it would be a disservice to these exquisitely wrought films to view them as rough drafts. Her first film, which bears the most direct connection with her recent feature, is a case in point.
Made in 2009, Atlantiques, is an experimental documentary that could be perceived as a narrative tangent to the longer work. The material covered in the first film depicts a prelude of sorts to some of the key events of the feature, and tethers Diop’s partly fantastical later film to material reality. In Atlantiques, we sit on the beach around a fire as a group of young Senegalese men, shrouded in shadow, talk about possibly trying to cross the ocean to Spain in a pirogue. Diop begins the film with a close-up of a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the graininess and brownish-yellow tint of the image make the machine resemble an ancient artifact dragged from the sea.
The two main speakers of the group, Serigne Seck and Alpha Diop, debate whether the perilous journey is worth the possibility of finding work in Europe. (Alpha claims that he would physically stop Serigne from going.) The discussion turns to a previous trip that ended in disaster, and there is an easy slippage from hard economic fact to mythological and spiritual belief. Diop visually contrasts enveloping darkness and blinding illumination, emphasizing the film’s primary conflict between a bleak home and the lure of the unknown. In Atlantics the feature, Diop presents men in similar circumstances, but the documentary short gives a fuller sense of who they are and why they had to go.
In her highly sensual directorial style, and especially in her focus on the plasticity of light and the human form, Diop displays commonalities with her compatriots Claire Denis and Bertrand Bonello. (Diop has worked with Denis, acting in 2008’s 35 Shots of Rum.) Diop’s second film, Snow Canon (2011), is perhaps the most straightforward of her short works, although it is certainly defined as much by mood as by narrative logic. The film focuses on Vanina (Nilaya Bal), a teenager who has been left at her parents’ Alpine chalet while they are on vacation. At first thinking that she was going to be watched by an attractive young man, Vanina soon meets Mary Jane (Nour Mobarak), a young American woman (presumably a student) who has been hired to keep an eye on her.
The younger girl experiences sexual longing that she cannot channel; the older girl is in the process of breaking up with her boyfriend over text. As Vanina tries on a number of vampish poses, and Mary Jane recognizes the potential for trouble, the bond between the two of them grows, each seemingly encountering the other at just the right time. Diop orchestrates Snow Canon a bit like a more reserved Catherine Breillat, observing her actresses as they move through the heavy shadows of the palatial lodge, sussing each other out. The director creates a dark, womblike atmosphere that envelops her protagonists, emphasizing the sense that they are temporarily in a world of their own. A self-aware riff on the subgenre of “female identity swap” films (from Persona to Mulholland Drive and beyond), Snow Canon is also a tender, humorous portrait of queer flirtation.
For her third film, Diop decided to delve further into the problem of global identity and the itinerant search for “home.” Big in Vietnam (2012) begins on a film set in Marseille, as a group of French and Vietnamese actors work on a highly formalist film about desire, memory, and landscape. (In the first shot, the film-within-a-film resembles Straub/Huillet, while a fog-laden boudoir scene bears traces of Hiroshima mon amour and India Song.) In the middle of the shoot, the main actor goes missing, leading the director (Henriette Nhung) to abandon the project and head into town on foot, leaving her son (Mike Nguyen) in charge.
Wandering through Marseille, Henriette enters a bar where she discovers a Vietnamese man (Ghe Büi) singing karaoke. She joins him, and they begin to converse as they walk along the shore. He emigrated from Vietnam; she never lived there. Together they discuss their feelings of dislocation in France, while a second camera crew films them as though they were the subjects of the original movie all along. Diop employs jump cuts, high-key videography, and handheld vs. tripod imagery, all to dislocate the viewer as well. Big in Vietnam is a reflexive essay about cinema’s role in conjuring a sense of place. While the film-within-the-film exhibits a distinctly French sensibility, the larger work is self-reflexive, calling to mind certain Apichatpong Weerasethakul shorts—especially his 2005 film Worldly Desires—that also consider cinema’s historical connection to colonialism and exile.
Following Big in Vietnam, Diop made her fourth short, possibly the most distinct item in her relatively cohesive filmography. Liberian Boy (2015) is a five-minute dance film featuring a young man (Jules Langlade) performing classic Michael Jackson moves. In a studio lit in blaring green, he gyrates, throws elbows, goes en pointe, and eventually begins brandishing a switchblade. Diop does not use Jackson’s music, but she does seem to be interrogating the problems of youth and identity that circulate around Jackson, his persona, and his troubled history. A white kid adopts his style, not only raising questions of race and appropriation, but also drawing attention to the issue of Jackson’s ostensible love object—the “Liberian Girl” of the song, or someone like the boy on-screen. What does it mean that an icon like Michael Jackson was accused of pedophilia? And how does this complicate the pleasures and desires his music inspires?
The film Diop made just before Atlantics is a complex meditation on family, film history, and spatial dislocation. A Thousand Suns is a forty-five-minute documentary featurette that has as its focus one of the undisputed classics of African cinema. Touki bouki (1973), the Senegalese road movie by Djibril Diop Mambéty, is being celebrated in Dakar at the time of its fortieth anniversary. (Mambéty, who died in 1998, was Mati Diop’s uncle, adding resonance to the documentary project.) As part of the screening, the producers want to feature Touki bouki’s star, Magaye Niang. In the years since appearing in Mambéty’s film, Niang has become a cattle hand working at an abattoir, a visual reference to one of the signature images from Touki bouki—a motorcycle adorned with a bull’s horns on the handlebars.
As we see in A Thousand Suns, Niang lives a productive but somewhat unfulfilled life, arguing with his wife and spending time drinking in bars, exhibiting a restlessness that he cannot quite articulate. As he begins to ruminate on the years since making Touki bouki, Niang reveals that he never got over the loss of Mareme Niang, the actress who played opposite him in the film. She left Dakar for the U.S., just like her character Anta set sail for France. (Magaye’s character stays behind.) Just as Touki bouki was based on those around Mambéty, A Thousand Suns enfolds the actors’ present lives with the narrative of Mambéty’s film, eventually making fact and fiction indistinguishable.
We see Niang grapple with the distance, in time and space, between himself and Mareme. During a long-distance call, they struggle to communicate. Where is she living? What is she doing? What has he been up to? All the while, the telephone operator is ticking off the minutes Niang bought with his 1,000 francs. Near the end of A Thousand Suns, we see Niang walking across the snow, stumbling as he tries to traverse an ambiguous distance. Over landscape scenes that are difficult to place, Niang and Mareme talk about “home” as a concept that is forever deferred. He quotes James Baldwin: “You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”
Diop’s cinema is riven with contradictions that she is too intelligent an artist to resolve with reassuring images of “homeland” or “development.” Like Atlantics, A Thousand Suns is a film that depicts Dakar as a crossroads between tradition and modernity. It is weighted with the pull of home but has become increasingly intolerable as a place to dwell, as postcolonial grift gives way to neoliberal exploitation. Before the screening of Touki bouki, a group of kids dance and play in the blue light of the video projector, a moment prior to the start of the movie that is in stark contrast to the rich colors in Mambéty’s film. The cinematic past is retrievable only through present-day technology. Touki bouki is an artifact from a world the children will never know.
This is the precise space in which Diop maneuvers. As with Atlantics, Diop’s short films explore the present as a time traversed by history and memory, ghosts and totems of previous generations, their desires and their mistakes. These are films that speak to a primal loss but also take that unsteady ground as the foundation for new, tentative identities. Within this landscape, “home” is an unreachable ideal, created by our longing for a wholeness we never really had.
All five of Mati Diop’s short films are now playing on the Criterion Channel.