Mati Diop becomes first black female filmmaker to compete in Cannes

French-Senegalese director Mati Diop's feature film debut, Atlantics, is competing for Cannes' top honour, the Palme d'Or.

French-Senegalese director is the first black woman to direct a film in the festival's 72-year history

Mati Diop was initially disappointed when she, by reading a news article, discovered that she was the first black female filmmaker in the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious competition. (Antony Jones/Getty Images)

Mati Diop was initially disappointed when she, by reading a news article, discovered that she was the first black female filmmaker in the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious competition in its 72-year history.

"I hadn't realized myself. I didn't know," the 36-year-old French-Senegalese filmmaker said in an interview with The Associate Press. "My first reaction is that I found it quite sad. I thought, 'Oh, is it?' So there's still a long way to go before it becomes something completely natural and normal and something that's not noticeable, the fact that I'm a black woman."

Diop's milestone has been enthusiastically celebrated in Cannes, where she on Thursday premiered her feature film debut Atlantics (Atlantique). The film, which is competing for Cannes' top honour, the Palme d'Or, focuses on the women left behind in Dakar when many of the local young men flee Senegal for Spain by boat, unable to make a living at home.

But for Diop, her unique position in Cannes is a perplexing distinction.

"What I realized, and I'm not used to this feeling, is that it happened to me. I'm not responsible for that. I haven't done anything specific for that. I've just made the film I wanted to make," said Diop. "I'm not embarrassed. I'm not proud. I just take it as a pure fact."

Atlantics marks Diop's first feature as a director, but she's previously made five shorts, one of which was the basis for her Cannes entry. That 2009 short bore the same title but a different perspective, concentrating on a young man forced into a dangerous migration.

"I was myself a witness of the situation, quite a close witness," said the Paris-based Diop, who 10 years ago visited her family in Senegal. "It was 10 years ago that there was this whole wave of a young generation who were trying to flee. They went toward Spain and many of them disappeared. I needed to tell this story. I had already dealt with it in my short but I felt I wasn't done with it."

Diop links her reconnection with Senegal to her birth as a filmmaker. She is the daughter of Senegalese jazz musician Wasis Diop and niece of the pioneering Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety (Touki Bouki). Diop's 2013 documentary A Thousand Suns examined her uncle's legacy and his 1972 film which is considered a cornerstone of African cinema.

Diop has gradually formed her own aesthetic, one that sometimes bleeds documentary and fiction. A friend called Atlantics "a fantasy documentary." Diop prefers "a contemplative action film."

"It was written as a fiction but I don't make this limit. I don't think it's our business as filmmakers to draw these limits between documentaries and fiction. When you have the desire to make a film, you make a film," she says. "The reality that I described is so anchored in social and political and economic terms, of course there is a real texture and embodiment of the subject and my approach in it, that can be documentary-like."

Atlantics is also dazzlingly otherworldly, with waves of sorrow washing up on Dakar shores. Mama Sane plays Ada, whose boyfriend, along with his shipmates, vanish at sea. After, a mysterious spectre haunts many of those who drove the young men away. Diop compares the tale to Ulysses.

"It's a misunderstanding to consider Penelope (of Ulysses) a passive figure who's just waiting for her beloved to come back," said Diop. "What I found interesting is that although these women are waiting for these men to come, their life is transformed by the experience of this loss. It's how these women can reconquer their own life and reach a certain level of emancipation through the loss they experience."

Diop has gradually come to terms with her history-making status in Cannes. On Friday, she told reporters that maybe she is a little proud, and noted that Jordan Peele's films (UsGet Out) have been enthralling for her. In the interview, she cited Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides as a guidepost to her.

"I must acknowledge that myself, when I was growing up, I didn't have a black or mixed race filmmaker who would have been inspirational to me," said Diop. "It's important to have these kinds of figures. So if I may someday become a kind of figure — for younger women, then that would be wonderful. So I think it does matter."

Artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, Cameron Bailey also gave a nod to Diop's appearance at the Cannes competition.