Film/Art | In the Realm of the Senses: Mati Diop on Mille soleils

mati diop
By Andréa Picard

“This fever is a nightly invader that strikes the patient during deep sleep. He jumps off his bed and runs to the bridge. There, he believes seeing beyond the waves, trees, forests, flowered meadows. His joy erupts in thousand exclamations. He experiences the most burning desire to flow into the ocean.”—Atlantiques

“You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”—James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

“I think I’ve heard this song before.”

“Sure. And you will hear it again. There will always be somewhere to sing you this song.”—Mille soleils

While the waves, awesome and terrifying, are continuously invoked, even summoned, throughout the entirety of Mati Diop’s breakout short film Atlantiques (2009), the ocean is shown only once, under the title presumably bearing its name. Its mysterious pull, its promise of both life and death, its magnetic glimmer at night remain lodged in our imagination, as the sound of crashing waves becomes accompaniment for a mythic tale told around the crackling embers of a burning fire, where young men gather to relate their life-threatening attempts to reach Europe on a pirogue. Inspired by the real-life experiences of young African men who have made or contemplated such perilous journeys, Atlantiques renders its subject in elliptical fragments, within an abstracted spatio-temporal realm charged with a mournful yet restlessly hopeful intensity. With astonishing economy, Diop creates in a mere 15 minutes a sensual, intimate, seemingly timeless tone poem about friendship, family, identity, fear, courage, and longing—in another word, exile. And even as death haunts her hushed fever dream, the film gently refutes the idea of finitude with its seductive glances and hovering resolve.

Now five short and medium-length films (and a number of artist videos) into her career and with a feature film on the way, Diop has clearly emerged as a major cinematic talent, one whose unorthodox style has surprisingly garnered an impressive collection of awards along the international film festival circuit. Why surprising? Because barring certain exceptions (the Apichatpalme, or the Locarno winners, for example), such nonconformity is rarely recognized in such large forums, and certainly not consistently. Diop’s films radically challenge and upend standard narrative construction—their mid-length running times alone suggest a rhythm and pace at odds with convention—and aside from the 2011 Snow Canon, which was shot on 35mm with a professional cinematographer, her work can appear both coarse and fragile to eyes increasingly accustomed to homogenous high-definition. Porous but never poor, her images create textures and sensations that trace or partake of the inner conflicts of Diop’s characters, transforming tangible places into metaphysical microcosms: Atlantiques’ transcendent flickering campfire somewhere in Africa; a hot-box luxury chalet in the foothills of the Alps in Snow Canon; a verdant suburban Marseille in Big in Vietnam (2012) that surprisingly melds into an urban, nocturnal transcontinental drift; a dusty road in Dakar whose onscreen mise en abyme magically leads to the misty snowscapes of Alaska in her most recent and most ambitious film yet, Mille soleils.

Beautifully inscrutable, Diop’s films are exceedingly personal, drawn from memory, experience, and chance encounters. Drifting and dreamy, they proceed (sometimes haphazardly) like phantasms of the mind, travelling over bodies that are magnetically drawn together—“the triumph of the flesh,” as Diop once put it—whether it be for comfort or lust (or especially the interstice where the two meet), or in order to access distant lands (“the life faraway,” reads a tattoo on the arm of the karaoke singer in Big in Vietnam) that are remembered, yearned for, or fancifully concocted. As if enveloped by a flushed, hallucinatory heat, her films emanate steam even in cold climes. Above all, they are nakedly human, peopled by characters who are fearful yet resolute, consumed by desire and full of gumption, who ultimately interrupt the seemingly helpless flow of their lives by taking risks, by fleeing, by exercising their intuition and, most importantly, by being vulnerable in their solitude.

Claire Denis—whose 35 rhums (2008) introduced Diop as a young actress with a striking, sensual presence and talent to spare—recently observed that Diop’s films stand apart from those of her French peers, that they refuse to partake of a certain fashionable cynicism, residing instead on “planète cinema.” That’s hardly surprising, given Diop’s august cinephilic lineage: she is the niece of legendary Senegalese poet and filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty and daughter of jazz musician Wasis Diop, who has earned acclaim for his work as a soundtrack composer, most notably for the films of Mahamet-Saleh Haroun. It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to cite the influence of Mambéty’s non-linear, semi-experimental approach to storytelling or Denis’ focus on the body, use of choreographed movement, and slowly mounting emotional intensity on Diop’s work: the enduring spell cast by Denis’ 1999 masterpiece Beau travail (particularly its ecstatic ending) can be felt in both Snow Canon and Mille soleils, while the latter film is a raw and wrenching homage to Mambéty and his 1973 masterpiece Touki Bouki, positing a reunion of the film’s two main actors four decades later. And yet the ways in which Diop harnesses fantasy and the real, gives desire a form (sometimes invoking musical structure), and examines exile as an intimate, subjective, and irrepressible state have resulted in films that are very much her own: formidable, haunting, and powerfully sensual.

As Mille soleils wends its way along the festival circuit, Mati Diop kindly took the time to speak to us on the heels of the Viennale about why it took her so long to complete the project, her physical approach to filmmaking, and her admiration for James Baldwin and Claire Denis.

Cinema Scope: Let’s begin with your latest film, Mille soleils, which is, in some ways, a return to origins—familial, but also for your filmmaking. While I’ve always felt that your cinema wonderfully traverses so many narrative conventions, shuttling from moments of raw reality or memory to pure fantasy, even myth, this film synthesizes these extremes in a concrete way. It demonstrates how cinema can be inscribed on a body, as much as in our imaginary, and how fiction has a complex life of its own. How long had this project been brewing for you? How important was it for you to further explore your uncle’s cinema?

Mati Diop: Mille soleils is a project that came from far away, born of an introspective quest, from questions about the importance of cinema in my life and that of my family, about the origins of my desire to make films, and also from my relationship with Africa. The project was born in 2008, shortly after the end of the shoot for Claire Denis’ 35 rhums, in which I act. It was an experience that profoundly affected me. It was also the year that marked the tenth anniversary of the death of my uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty. It was a period in which I was led to think about and measure this loss, which resulted in long conversations with my father about the life and death of Djibril, on his films, especially Touki Bouki. This is when I discovered the thousand stories hiding behind Touki Bouki—our family’s history, but also the history of the film’s stars Magaye Niang and Myriam Niang. My film project was born in 2008 but I didn’t make it until 2013. It was therefore constructed in stages, alongside Atlantiques, Big in Vietnam and Snow Canon, the films I made between 2009 and 2012. After having found and affirmed my own cinematographic language, I was ready to make Mille soleils and to look Touki Bouki straight in the eye.

Scope: How authentic was Magaye Niang and Myriam Niang’s phone conversation in the film—in other words, their reunion after 40 years?

Diop: It bears reminding that Mille soleils is a fiction. The sole element of reality that I kept in my film is that Magaye Niang stayed in Dakar and Myriam Niang left for Alaska. From there I took fictional liberties, but the phone conversation that is heard in the film remains quite faithful to the real conversation that I recorded between the two actors. Nothing is true and nothing is false in my film. The friction and two-way shuttling between reality and myth is the main subject of my film.

Scope: How did you approach the writing of Mille soleils, given the documentary backbone of the project?

Diop: In five years, I accumulated a lot of material, especially from my travels between Dakar and New York to meet the two actors, which greatly fed the writing. The experiences, the encounters and the stories that accumulated during the preparation of the film fuelled the writing. The recording of the telephone conversation and the images shot in the slaughterhouse during the first trip to Dakar comprised the very first and defining materials. They remained in the film. But it is mostly what I lived and observed in Dakar, with Magaye on the one hand, and with certain members of my family on the other, which inspired me.

Scope: What compelled you to cite James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room at the end of the film?

Diop: I had never read anything as beautiful and relevant on the question of exile. Its reality, in all of its difficult-to-grasp complexity, is revealed in that dialogue which became like his equation. James Baldwin is one of the greatest American writers that I know. He’s also a descendant of slavery who carries exile and rootlessness in his cells, his bones and his blood.

Scope: The film has a striking aesthetic that oscillates between an impressive, compositional and polished look to hand-held, more rough-hewn images that evince a frenetic, candid energy. Can you tell us how you shared cinematography duties with Hélène Louvart, and how you chose the formal aspects for the film?

Diop: When producer Corinne Castel joined me on the project I had already shot many images myself, ones that constituted a sort of image bank or visual repository for the film. And when the question of cinematography arose for the final shoot, I felt it was crucial for the film that I take some real distance from it. I therefore proposed my film to a director of cinematography whose work I greatly admire, Hélène Louvart. When Hélène read my project, she immediately suggested that we combine 35mm and video. For the video, I chose to keep the same camera that I had used when I first began working on the film alone in order to preserve the spontaneity and lightness that the camera had afforded me until then. In the end, we shared in the film’s image-making, and we found a perfect balance. Hélène’s gaze and presence behind the camera allowed me to be completely available for the mise en scène and for the actors without preventing me from taking part and filming certain scenes when it was necessary for me to do so. I feel this alternation of different image systems reveals the film’s different temporalities.

Scope: Over the course of your filmmaking, you’ve defined a certain signature look—an overtly sensual one, even when the images are captured with low-grade video. Atlantiques, for instance, while mostly shot at night on mini-DV, resonates with beauty and mystery from the sheer force of its economy. Can you discuss how you approach cinematography and whether your choice of format, video or 35mm (as used in Snow Canon and parts of Mille soleils) is one that ensues from the project itself, or its budget?

Diop: In the early 2000s, it was film or DV (the PD 150 or the Panasonic DVX100). I chose DV because it was less expensive. I didn’t want to burden myself with technology, and it offered me great freedom. At the time, to make films was for me above all about making images, to frame, to feel a real closeness to and proximity with my actors. I had a symbiotic relationship with my films. It was physical. For Atlantiques and Big in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to shoot in HD but I voluntarily opted to continue with these crude and poorly defined images. It became an aesthetic choice, a form of resistance against the standardization of HD images and a way of retaining the control and identity of my images. For Snow Canon, celluloid seemed like the obvious choice. I radically went elsewhere with this film. I spent time writing and, for the first time, I called upon a director of cinematography. With Mille soleils, I think I found a perfect balance by combining all of these different modes of production with which I had previously experimented.

Scope: While addressing themes of migration, identity, desire, and exile, your films eschew grand arcs in favour of more personal and intimate experiences. And consequently their locations, while important to the respective films—whether Dakar, Marseille, the foot of the French Alps, or Alaska—become charged or electrified spaces abstracted and stripped of their specificity. Can you talk about the importance of place or location in your films, and this tendency toward drifting?

Diop: Yes, I talk about exile, identity, and desire like intimate experiences because that’s what they are above all. In regards to the spaces, it’s the notion of territory that is important to me, as they are interconnected to the interiority and trajectory of a character. My characters rarely find themselves where they want to be in the world: there is always somewhere to escape from, to return to, or to conquer by means of the imagination.

Scope: Another defining feature (and great reward) of your films is that they are seeped in mood; their sense of atmosphere lingers far beyond their stories. In some cases this is heightened with elliptical editing, but especially noteworthy is the way in which you use music to amplify tensions and create a general, wafting sensuality: the Fresnel lens rotating to Bent’s “The Everlasting Blink” at the end of Atlantiques; the carry-over of Mozart’s “L’ho perduta” from Le Nozze di Figaro which strays into the forest like Valmont’s taking flight in Big in Vietnam (which also includes an extraordinarily hot karaoke scene!); the sci-fi sounds emanating from the pink-lit cave in Snow Canon and the film’s final slow-mo, sultry salvo to Farah’s “Gay Boy”; and, of course, Mille soleils’ bookending by “High Noon,” the theme song to Fred Zinnerman’s 1952 western. How important is music to your films, and to you generally?

Diop: I cannot really explain my relationship to music. It is at the heart of my life since forever. I became interested in sound long before I was interested in images. In fact, I think my first script resembled a sonic work more than it did a film. I made music when I was younger, and I conceived soundtracks for friends’ theatre pieces that literally consisted of writing through sound. When cinema took over, my approach remained very musical. I began thinking of the conception of a short film like that of a song.

Scope: How has acting affected your filmmaking and your writing? There’s an affinity between your films and those of Claire Denis, especially in their approach to desire, and the sometimes-brash actions and rebellion of your characters. What did you learn from being on set with Claire during the shooting of 35 rhums? What do you appreciate most about her directing?

Diop: I know that acting has enormously enriched and rendered more concrete my relationship to writing and to my actors but I cannot precisely explain this relationship. My experience working with Claire Denis on 35 rhums has particularly affected me. I wouldn’t know where what she conveyed to me begins or ends. It’s huge. Claire is just as captivating as her films, as beautiful, as secretive.

Scope: You’ve won an inordinate number of awards and prizes, including two Tiger awards in Rotterdam, the Grand Prize at FID and the Loup Argenté in Montréal for Mille soleils, and a major acting award for your role in 35 rhums, among others. Does this create added pressure as you prepare your first feature film, or does it give you added confidence? Does it help or hinder funding opportunities, given today’s climate and structures for the funding of independent film?

Diop: It’s very encouraging to see one’s work appreciated and welcomed by festivals the world over. Especially given that my films have been uncompromising, until now. However, short films circulate in a world quite sheltered from the industry. These two worlds communicate far less than we would think. The stakes are completely different for a feature film. It’s another ball game.

Scope: What can you tell us about the feature you’re presently working on?

Diop: With Mille soleils, an initial cycle of films comes to an end. I am tackling a new phase in my work by making a feature. It’s a fiction that takes the shape of a fable, a gothic tale about the youth of Dakar from the 2000s.