In the Atmosphere

In Mati Diop’s Atlantics, every breath takes in the evaporated substance of history

Lindsay Turner
Still from the film Atlantics, 2019.
Still from Atlantics, 2019.

Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature film as director, tells the story of Ada and Souleiman, a pair of young lovers living in Dakar, Senegal. Ada is engaged to be married to a wealthy businessman, Omar. Souleiman is employed as a worker on a construction project, an eerily out-of-place white tower up the coast from the city that sometimes looms dimly in shots of the skyline. Since Souleiman and his co-workers are not being paid for their work, they plan to emigrate to Europe. But before Souleiman has a chance to tell Ada about it and bid her farewell properly, the entire crew sets off secretly at night by boat. They don’t make it, but they are not quite gone: they leave behind a group of young women—Ada and her friends—whose mourning takes on a supernatural cast. The plot should be saved until you see the film, but what follows involves haunting, arson, and an unexpected return: a chain of loss, drama, mystery, and love.

Atlantics is a pointedly contemporary film that works through a brilliant mix of genre conventions and realist themes; equal parts love story and ghost story, it is also a tale of labor, gender, inequality, exploitation, and global migration. Water—the Atlantic Ocean—is obviously one central thematic presence. But ultimately it is in the air that the film’s major themes most powerfully converge. As Diop depicts it, the air of Dakar is magnificently full: of dust, of sunlight caught in dust, of exhaust or smoke, of orange haze as the sun sets over the titular ocean. It’s no accident that a film so starkly topical is so gorgeously—literally and concretely—atmospheric.

With Atlantics, Diop emerges from a long tradition of Senegalese filmmakers and also takes her place in the world of European cin- ema. Trained in Paris, she starred as an actress in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and directed several acclaimed short films and documentaries. Atlantics has been received and lauded worldwide: in 2019 Diop became the first black woman director to be in the running for the Cannes Festival Lion d’Or, and Atlantics was awarded a Grand Prix. (Its cinematographer, Claire Mathon, also shot another acclaimed 2019 film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.) Yet especially in her most recent work before Atlantics—the documentary A Thousand Suns (2008)—Diop turns back toward Senegal; the documentary centers on the classic Senegalese film Touki Bouki (1973), written and directed by her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty. For viewers familiar with Senegalese cinema, Atlantics also recalls another quasi-supernatural movie of a shifting Dakar, Ousmane Sembène’s classic Xala.

But if Diop’s background as a filmmaker, like the film’s production and reception, bridges European and African contexts, Atlantics unfurls in one place: Dakar. The westernmost city on the African mainland, Dakar is located on a point of land that juts out into the ocean. The movie magnificently conveys a sense of the specific place and imparts a local feel. In both indoor and outdoor scenes—shots of traffic jams, shots of lace-curtained bedrooms— you can almost feel the salty, dusty air settle on your skin. This local atmosphere, however, is inseparable from global conditions, since in Diop’s hands, both the pollution in the air and the relationship between air and water are highly politicized, linked to contemporary economic development and the transatlantic slave trade, respectively.

In other words, air is about interpenetration and in this film inseparable from history, from global inequality and disaster. Or as the poet and scholar Margaret Ronda writes, “With its uneven composition and its complex relay between corporeal interiors and exteriors, air offers an index of how nature and history interweave in an ongoing dynamic. Bearing the impress of productive relations in the form of emissions and pollutants, air expands our definition of these relations to include substances not directly generated by these processes but nevertheless entangled in them.” Dakar’s pollution, for example, is omnipresent in the film, starting from the opening scene, which depicts Souleiman and the construction crew at work as a smoggy wind whips around them. Later in the film, a young detective stumbles outside his office into more golden after- noon air than the smog that envelops the construction workers. His breath is labored: the causes for this (we learn) are supernat- ural, but it seems impossible to separate his condition from the density of the air. Some of the city’s roads are red dirt, stirred up by foot and animal traffic to redden the air. A few fires of mysterious origin give off billows of ominous smoke.

These clogged atmospheres are not the products of cinematic embellishment. According to a 2019 New York Times article on Dakar’s air quality and the challenges it poses for the city’s numerous outdoor exercisers, “Dakar’s air exceeds by more than five times the limits set by the World Health Organization of the amount of small particles that when inhaled can damage health.” But not all of the smog Diop films is produced in Dakar; it is also borne by winds from elsewhere. Even if some of the particulate haze filling the late afternoon Senegalese air is a result of the city it blankets, a certain amount of that pollution comes from goods manufactured by outside companies, to be exported elsewhere, and a certain amount from construction financed by multinational companies. The Times article notes that a French military base in Dakar regularly burns its trash. If the city’s population growth has to do with long-standing drought in rural areas leading to migration to the city, as the same article suggests, that drought has been caused by climate change from carbon emissions assuredly not from Senegal.

We tend to think of air as transparent and communal, as something we all have and breathe. And yet air, or access to air, varies across living and working spaces.

The anthropologist Kristen Simmons, writing on indigenous resistance and what she calls “settler atmospherics,” has argued that “the conditions we breathe in are collective and unequally distributed, with particular qualities and intensities that are felt differently through and across time.” We tend to think of air as transparent and communal. And yet air, or access to air, varies across living and working spaces. In the situation Simmons describes, the air is made unbreathable for the water protectors at Standing Rock by tear gas and pepper spray. In an essay on the cen- trality of breath to poetry, Nathaniel Mackey cites Eric Garner’s last words, as he was strangled by a New York City police officer—“I can’t breathe”—as part of a racialized history of breathing and not breathing: black bodies stifling in the ship’s hold, black windpipes broken by lynching. (At the moment this essay goes to print, the phrase rings in the air across the U.S., after the brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.) Air is of limited quantity, and in the zero-sum game of contemporary atmospheres, good air to breathe goes to the privileged. Like water, in our world air is a commons-turned-commodity.

Air is like water: here is one way of thinking about the film’s title, Atlantics. Indeed, ocean and air often intermingle: at night, in several scenes, girls emerge from their individual houses into an air that’s thick with brine and mist, ringing with night insects. In the ocean shots that punctuate the film, the night sky isn’t black but purple-brown with sea haze, a lighthouse beacon just barely making its way through, clouds blowing visibly over the moon. Like the air’s visibility, the ocean’s presence helps create the here-ness of Dakar, city of beaches and vistas.

The ocean is also a locus for the pervasiveness of history, development, and inequality. This is, we know, a film about mass migration. Diop shows Ada and her friends at the beachside bar, the camera panning across their faces as they sit, almost posing, portraits of heartbreak and resilience. Filmed this way, they form a company, a collective whole—a group of women left on shore, after the group of men (“the boys”) have set off in a flimsy boat across the ocean to find work. Ada and Souleiman’s story is thus multiplied: it’s not so much Odysseus and Penelope as it is a crew of Odysseuses, a collective force of waiting Penelopes. For all of them the ocean is a site of danger and potential, passage to a new life elsewhere or agent of death. And this cold Atlantic undercurrent is old, at least as old as the transatlantic slave trade. As the literary and Black studies scholar Christina Sharpe writes in In the Wake:

But even if those Africans who were in the holds, who left something of their prior selves in those rooms as a trace to be discovered, and who passed through the doors of no return did not survive the holding and the sea, they, like us, are alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine. This is what we know about those Africans thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in Middle Passage; they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time.

Sharpe concludes the passage with a sentence by the poet Dionne Brand: “They said with wonder and admiration, you are still alive, like hydrogen, like oxygen.”

Brand’s and Sharpe’s words illuminate a chemical logic at work in the film. The Atlantic, resting place for enslaved people taken from Senegal centuries ago and for migrant people leaving right now, repository of collective grief, literally becomes the air we breathe. The moisture in the air is the moisture from the sea; it is the evaporated substance of history. Like hydrogen, like oxygen: we breathe it in. Diop’s air is haunted by the particles of those lost at sea, saturated with the products of local and global fossil fuel emissions, conditioned by the economics of uneven and destructive development.

In a review in The Atlantic (the magazine), Hannah Giorgis writes that the film “captures just how omnipresent departed loved ones can be. For Ada, and for viewers, Souleiman is in the air.” Souleiman is in the air, but not in an immaterial sense. Instead, the film’s love story and the story of globalization and exploitation it tells are one and the same, and Souleiman returns like the ocean mist or the dust, inseparable from the reasons he took to sea.

Atlantics gives us a very material version of hauntedness, rendering the invisible cruelties of the past and wrenching injustices of the present miraculously sensible. These cruelties and injustices are dispersed in the air that blankets the Senegalese capital. Diop’s film is an atmospheric masterpiece in that it redefines what it means for a film to be “atmospheric,” refracting, transforming that term from a subjective descriptor into a dynamic mode of registering contemporary and historical politics. The air is not only the film’s great beauty but ultimately a surprising point of entry into the tragedies and complexities of global interconnection.

Lindsay Turner is the author of the poetry collections Songs & Ballads and The Upstate. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Originally published:
June 1, 2020


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