French-Senegalese actor and director Mati Diop made her short-film directorial debut in 2009 with Atlantiques, a documentary about Senegal (where her father was born) and the desperate people there who make treacherous boat-crossings in the hope of a better life. She has since made four more shorts and now makes her narrative feature debut with Atlantics, which takes the same setting and themes as the original short doc, but also infuses it with romance and a ghost story. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes, where she made history as a black woman and was a Special Screening at AFI Fest. It has just come onto Netflix and is well worth watching for it’s eerie atmosphere, stunning score and cinematography and the central performance from Mame Sane.

In Dakar, Ada (Mame Sane) is experiencing what seems like a first love with Soleiman (Ibrahima Traore), a builder on an enormous high-rise. Soleiman and his fellow workers are being exploited and haven’t been paid for weeks. In desperation, Soleiman and his young friends take a boat to sea in the hope of reaching Spain. Ada is devastated by this loss and is torn about marrying Omar (Babacar Sylla), a rich man who can provide her with a good house and better life. On the wedding night, Ada’s friend Mariama tells her that she has seen Soleiman and then a fire rages through Omar’s palatial home, which appears to originate in the centre of the marital bed. A young policeman, Issa (Amadou Mbow) begins investigating the fire and takes an interest in Ada, all while suffering from a mysterious illness which also starts to affect Ada’s friends. One night the girls who have been left behind become zombie-like, with white eyes. They have been over-taken by the souls of the boys who have been lost at sea and they use the bodies of the girls to go to their old boss’ house in the middle of the night and demand the wages that they are owed.

One of the greatest strengths of Atlantics is the cinematography by Claire Mathon (who also shot one of the most visually stunning films of the year: Portrait of a Lady on Fire). The use of colour reveals the stark contrast between the world of the day and the world of the night; from the extreme dusty white of the building site to the grey ominous sea, like an overwhelming void during the day – which is a constant, roaring presence in the lives of the characters. At night, the inky blackness is infused with blue and green lights from the club where the girls go to meet the boys and where they first discover that they have voyaged out into the vast dark sea. The wedding scene has more (ironically) romantic pink and purples in the lighting and costuming. Another huge factor in making this film so special is the score by Fatima Al Qadiri which is used sparingly, but hauntingly. It enhances the ghostly, eerie feel of the film and sounds like a lament, grieving the lost souls. Diop makes many powerful choices in her writing and direction. The girls stalking the streets at night, with their white eyes shining out of their dark skin make a terrifying and forceful presence. The boys inhabiting them are determined not to be forgotten or ignored.

It is such a moving statement about how the women and girls left behind by men through the centuries – because the men have to leave to go to war or find work – are haunted by them and their souls inhabit them. The boys, including Soleiman are only briefly introduced on-screen at the start of the film and they don’t even say goodbye to the girls, but this only makes their abrupt absence more shocking and brutal. That absence is an incredibly strong presence throughout the rest of the film and the love story between Ada and Soleiman is a driving force throughout, despite them only sharing minimal screen-time. [Spoilers] The decision to not show the boys once they’ve left, including how they died, apart from via the girls is extremely powerful. The story of how they died is reported to Ada by one of the “zombie girls”, making it part of an oral tradition which again connects Atlantics to history, as well as myth and legend. The notion that Issa the Policeman is investigating and searching for himself is also so poignant and it adds to the theme that the characters are already somehow in the past. They are keenly aware that life is fleeting because of the conditions they live and work in, they are willing to risk everything for a dream of a better life but become ghosts who cannot let their lives and its injustices go. The ending is heartbreakingly emotional, which again is a real achievement considering how little of the romance we’ve actually seen. There is a stunning final shot, joining a year which has had several involving women or girl protagonists taking ownership of themselves, their situation, their lives (The Souvenir, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Tigers are not Afraid). All show a determination for a better future.

Obviously the political messaging comes through, but isn’t heavy-handed. The parallels with working conditions in Dubai and Qatar are clear. The skyscraper that the boys work on is a stark monolith which surveys the city and seems completely incongruous, like something from a dystopian sci-fi. Unfortunately something which is relevant and has been in the news recently is one of the ways in which Ada is violated, which is a virginity test which Omar insists on and her own parents have no problem enforcing. When Ada is arrested, her father berates her mother for raising her poorly. Atlantics has that rare combination of being absolutely contemporary and urgent in its messaging, whilst also feeling like it’s already timeless and part of legend. It’s kind of incredible that a film like this is available on Netflix for anyone to watch. I urge you to give it a shot, as we are lucky to have such easy access to a filmmaker who is the calibre of Diop.

Rating: ★★★★

Directed by: Mati Diop
Written by: Mati Diop, Olivier Demangel
Cast: Mame Sane, Ibrahima Traore, Abdou Balde, Coumba Dieng, Omar Dieng