Now the sun had sunk is a video essay that I made for the Critics Choice program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020 by way of introduction to Mati Diop’s film Atlantics (2019). Set in contemporary Dakar, Atlantics presents the point of view of the women who remain in Senegal when their men leave on small boats to find their luck in Europe. Most never return, except as spirits that enter the bodies of those who remain. The film is told in an ingenious genre mixture that combines a love story, fairy tale, zombie movie and political drama. Images of the sea appear with a different affective attraction, ranging from lustful and mysterious to menacing and dangerous.
The starting point for my video essay was this pulling force of the ocean that holds the forces of life and death. In its waves, the sea contains many layers of the history of (forced) relocations between Europe and Africa, ranging from slavery to colonial invasions, and the waves of migration that followed after the decolonization. The video essay raises the spirits of those ‘specters of the sea’ by evocating them through visualizations from film history. Images of the sea give way to different layers of time. Beginning with Ada and Suleiman in present day Dakar from Atlantics (their love literally blocked by waves as tall as a building), the video essay returns to the 1960s and the end of colonial times depicted in Margarida Cardoso’s melancholic and terrifying A Costa dos Murmurios (2004), set at the end of the Portuguese colonial occupation of Mozambique; and to neo-colonial power relations in France in La Noire de… by Sembene Ousmane (Senegal, 1966). Further back in time, at a deeper level of the sea, enslavement and forced migration during the Middle Passage returns in the deeply haunting drawings of Tom Feelings. Djibril Diop Mambéty’s famous Touki Bouki (1973) is another love story in Dakar pulled apart by the sea that resonates with Atlantics. The fact that Mambéty was Mati Diop’s uncle adds another level of connection. Finally I also inserted a few scenes from an earlier short film by Mati Diop, Atlantiques (2009), where boys at the beach talk about the enduring desire to depart, in spite of the enormous dangers of the sea. The soundtrack equally brings out the whispers and wraiths of the water, combining excerpts from Stella Chiwehe and Fatima Al Qadiri from the enchanting sound track of Atlantics, with Jeanne Moreau’s ‘Dans l’eau du temps’ (‘In the water of time’) and Josephine Baker’s ‘Partir sur un bateau tout blanc’ (‘Leaving on a completely white ship’); and the tones of ‘Various states of colonial unease’ (by Bon Jarno), ‘Humming Ghosts’ (by Haunted me) and ‘Diatonic waves’ (by Lost Radio).
I have chosen for a poetic form, because I did not want to explain or analyze the poetic opacity and evocative power of Diop’s beautiful film. Moreover, inspired by post-colonial philosopher and writer Edouard Glissant’s ‘poetics of relation,’ I was looking for relations between Black and White that acknowledge difference and unknowability as well as the deep rhizomatic connections that ties the world together and that need to be recognized without universalizing everything to one knowledge system. And somewhere in the rolling crests of the sea the whispering voice of Virginia Woolf can be heard, as if she already saw the women-ghostly spirits on the verandah in Atlantics. For a more elaborate discussion of Diop’s film, see my the last chapter of my book New Blood in Contemporary Cinema: Women Directors and the Poetics of Horror (Edinburgh University Press, 2020).