At the Cannes Film Festival this month, Mati Diop became the first black woman to compete for the Palme d’Or. She’s also only the fourth woman in the festival’s 72-year history to win the Grand Prix, the Cannes equivalent of a silver medal.
Diop, 36, is a French-Senegalese filmmaker who directed and co-wrote Atlantique. The film follows Ada, a 17-year-old girl in love with a construction worker named Souleiman, despite being promised to another man. Souleiman leaves Senegal by sea one night, trying to sail to Europe for a better life. A fire ruins Ada’s wedding, a mysterious fever spreads through Dakar, and one day, Souleiman returns.
Diop visited Senegal in 2009, and Atlantique stems from that, she said at her festival press conference. So many men were fleeing Dakar by sea, in the dark of the night, that villages couldn’t put together football teams. A lot of those refugees never made it to the other side.
Diop made a documentary short film, Atlantiques, that told Souleiman’s story. As she was editing, she noticed a girl off to the side who stared straight at the camera. Atlantique is her story.
Here’s Diop’s story in the form of five fast facts about the filmmaker.
She had no idea she was the first black woman in competition.
Diop is the first black woman to ever compete for the Palme d’Or, but at first, she had no idea.
“I was very moved when I discovered that news,” she said during the Atlantique press conference at Cannes.
“My first feeling, to be honest, was a little sadness that this only happened now, today, in 2019. It’s pretty late … It’s always a reminder that so much work needs to be done still.”
Diop said it wasn’t a motivator to make her film, but “I needed to see black people on screen. Like huge, everywhere. It was really a need, and a very urgent need.” When she sees a Jordan Peele film, she said, “something different happens inside me, really … I can’t believe what I’m feeling. I’m looking to see how (many) black people (are) in the room. I almost count them.”
Atlantique is based on a true story.
It wasn’t unusual in the early 2000s for young people from Senegal to climb onto rickety wooden fishing boats for long, deadly, ill-planned journeys. But one in particular made the biggest headlines.
In November 2007, a patrol vessel found a boat floating off the Moroccan coast that had set sail from Senegal with about 150 people on board.
The ship sailed toward Spain with insufficient food and water, and at some point, it lost power. Dozens died from starvation, cold or thirst, including the captain. Fifty dead bodies were thrown overboard, and two were still on board when authorities found them. So were 98 shaken survivors.
She started out as an actor.
Diop has 11 IMDB acting credits, but she’s most known for playing Josephine in the Claire Denis film 35 Shots of Rum. Josephine is close to her dad, Lionel, who’s a transit operator in Paris. She meets a guy she likes and father and daughter have to come to terms with their changing relationship. It’s Diop’s first acting credit.
She’s not afraid to approach people on the street to be in her films.
Diop found the leads on the streets of Dakar. Mame Sane (Ada) had encountered Diop when she went outside to wash her hands. Amadou Mbow was catching a taxi, and Ibrahima Traore was at work. Traore said during the press conference that Diop asked if he wanted to be in a film. He said sure, but assumed nothing would come of it. Then “she came back.”
Her dad is a jazz musician and her uncle a well known African filmmaker.
Wasis Diop is a popular artist in France, blending Senegalese folk music with modern pop and jazz. He did the soundtrack for the films Hyenes and Daratt. His brother, Djibril Diop Mambety, directed the former, as well as Touki Bouki, which is considered a cornerstone of African cinema.