Women of Dakar

There is a gigantic supertower in Dakar, Senegal, and it is almost complete, and the men who work construction there soon have to find other jobs, especially because they haven’t seen their wages for the last three months, but work is scarce, so most of them will pay their passage on a boat for Europe. One of them is Souleiman, and he falls for a young woman named Ada, who is promised to a rich guy named Omar. Next day, word on the street is that Souleiman has left. There is that memorable scene where the women are wearing their best dresses and go to the beach hut where they hang out – and there are no men. Many of them are gone, and most of the women already know they will stay behind.

What makes that scene interesting is not only its atmosphere, because the audience, along with the ladies, only eventually realizes the men’s absence, but also the fact that the women get over their Saturday night quickly and get on with their lives. If Mati Diop’s first feature Atlantique would be content with a story of women without men, that would be interesting enough, but this movie aims higher. At night, some of the women start sleepwalking, their eyes turn a milky white, and they start speaking in the voices of the absent, the missing, the dead. That v-effect is deceptively simple, but it is highly effective: a group of women with shiny white eyes in the night, talking to you as if they were people on a boat in the Atlantic, risking their lives for a better future.

The movie does not show us any kind of scene on a boat; instead, it shows us the shores of Senegal, pointing outward across the endless sea, where so many have perished. There is nothing romantic about the waters – it’s a place of danger and death, and Diop films the sea as if it warns us against any kind of attempt to cross it. By making her film a ghost story, she is able to tell about the horrors of migration in a way that permits its characters to stay at home. That makes it sound like it is a downtrodden art-house exercise; it’s not, because Ada and her friends are young, smart and spirited women. Just because they worry about their men doesn’t make them less independent, it makes them more human. This is such an effortless love story, with a good bit of humour thrown in as well, that I was hooked twenty minutes into the story.

There seems to be a deliberate ploy at the heart of the film: during the day, Ada and her friends are the people they want to be (none of them seem to be professional actors); at night, their eyes change, and together, they bring about a better tomorrow all by themselves by scaring the construction manager into handing over a suitcase full of cash to them. Atlantique is the first movie in competition at Cannes with a black female  director. Really about time, I say.

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