How this film has haunted me.
Atlantiques (2009) resembles at first an epic poem, conveying the heroic deeds and adventures of a young man, Serigne Seck, through the ancient art of storytelling, here told in Wolof. And when our hero describes a dream in which he prepares tea, or when the darkness becomes enchanted with flickers from the fire that provides the scene’s only visible light, the film plays as a nocturne, a short, lyrical composition of music or, in art, a painting of a pensive scene at twilight.
But this is the Middle Passage Atlantic and the thick darkness here feels ominous, surrounding the men on all sides. There are forms of burial here, in grief, but an uncertain grief, having loosed the conventional moorings of context, character, and timeline. Who else are we mourning? What have we lost? How can I be here?
Serigne recounts hostile, exhausting oceans and terrified people in distress. In voiceover he says, “We were shocked by the wind and waves. Probably the same feeling you get when trapped in a falling building. You wonder where you are until the impact”. But when he describes life for his family on land in Senegal, it’s clear that living with mere “dust in his pockets” is another kind of violent life at sea. He’s trapped. Serigne’s heroism is an absence of fear that is neither courage nor hope.
The plurals of Atlantiques are maybe dialectics, philosophical debates, deeply weighted and angular arguments, still softened when exchanged between friends. Serigne’s buddies appear to speak as if they are conflicting aspects of one man’s grit—his determination to set sail again in a pirogue amid waves as tall as buildings against his equally clear-cut resolve to remain on land.
Survival wins out.
So, the film, bending between documentary and the avant-garde, is set in the unbearable limbo, the middle not-yet-action of desire. It’s about a quest but we don’t go anywhere. We sit together on the edge of an immense blackness. And talk. Tenderly. Fervently.
Of men that can turn to fish and swim to Spain.
Find out more about Atlantiques (2009) on MUBI via Amazon.
Terri Francis directs the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University, Bloomington and she is an associate professor of cinema and media studies in the Media School at IU. Her work has appeared in Transition, Black Camera, Film History and Film Quarterly. Her book The Cinematic Prism of Josephine Baker, a study that focuses on the curious reception, American circulation, and prismatic aesthetics of the Parisian entertainer’s films will be out from Indiana University Press soon. Check out the historical collections and ongoing happenings of the Black Film Center/Archive at http://www.indiana.edu/~bfca/home/ and follow Terri at: https://twitter.com/Terri_Francis