Art of the Real: The Films of Mati Diop
A Thousand Suns
The films of Mati Diop conjure faraway places. Characters both fictional and quasi-documentary long for locales beyond their reach, or sometimes, as if in a trance, they drift magnetically toward them. No matter where the films take place, there is always the specter of somewhere else, and, perhaps with it, the possibility of a different life. These evocations of distant locations—a friend’s tropical Yucatan adventures relayed by text message in Snow Canon (11), memories of home mournfully recalled in Big in Vietnam (12), and the idea of an opportunity-rich Europe worth risking one’s life for in Atlantiques (09) and A Thousand Suns (Mille Soleils, 13)—suffuse the concrete worlds her characters inhabit so that her films often seem to be in multiple places at once.
Simultaneously anchored in the real world and tuned into an imaginary one, Diop’s work offers a resolution to what is perhaps cinema’s oldest divide: the split between documentary observation (as practiced by the Lumière Brothers and their globetrotting band of cinematographers) and fictive creation (as seen in the magic films of George Méliès). In a statement typical of her enigmatic style, Diop has said of her hybrid style “nothing is true and nothing is false.” Instead, her films never announce what parts are fictive or documentary, and reside ambiguously between the two. In this space, which is perhaps unique to cinema, her characters find themselves rooted in one place and dreaming—deliriously, melancholically, and always vividly—of another.
To be in one place and immersed in the sights and sounds of another is, at heart, the condition of cinema itself. Correspondingly, Diop’s films are frequently reflexive, perhaps influenced by her career as an actress for Claire Denis and Antonio Campos: Big in Vietnam depicts the making of a film, a Franco-Vietnamese adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, while A Thousand Suns concerns the life of actor Magaye Niang 40 years after he starred in the Senegalese classic Touki Bouki, directed in 1973 by Diop’s uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty.
Big in Vietnam
In Big in Vietnam, the production stalls when the lead actor goes missing in the woods, and the director Henriette (Henriette Nhung) similarly abandons the set. Leaving the film in the tentative hands of her son, she wanders the streets of Marseille, eventually entering a Vietnamese restaurant. There, in a duet sung with a mysterious man, she finds the sensual quality she had been seeking in her film. As night turns to morning, he tells her stories of home. She asks about a tattoo on his arm, which means “the life far away.” With A Thousand Suns, Diop’s most accomplished film to date, the central event is a screening of Touki Bouki in a square in Dakar, similar to the gathering of people at a wrestling match in the original film. Niang arrives late and drunk as if he’d been reluctant to attend. Addressing the audience after the film, he’s asked how his life changed since making it; awash in the blue glow of the projector, he is silent. Like his character, Niang failed to board the boat departing Senegal. Later his old friends chastise him: “Touki means to travel and you are stuck! You should have traveled!”
Diop’s films assert a continuity between life as it is staged for the camera and the activities that occur behind the scenes. We’re compelled to imagine what happens beyond the frame, whether outside the space of production in Big in Vietnam, or long after the time of filming in A Thousand Suns. In such cases, cinema is powerfully involved in the way we imagine ourselves. Snow Canon, a coming-of-age story catalyzed by an erotic encounter with an American babysitter, is inspired by events from Diop’s own life, along with touches of the Stendhal short story “Vanina Vanini.” In the film, the teenage Vanina (Nilaya Bal) is by turns petulant and curious about the alluring older stranger (Nour Mobarak). At her family’s chalet, the shades are perpetually drawn, creating for the pair a private, sensual world set against the magisterial French Alps outside. A Thousand Suns, meanwhile, imagines Niang as a Western hero. As Tex Ritter warbles “The Ballad of High Noon,” the theme song from Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 Western, we see Niang, dressed in cowboy boots and a denim jacket with a studded star design, herding goats across a dusty intersection in Dakar. But he is no Will Kane, who, after a showdown with his rival, triumphantly leaves town. Instead, and for reasons unclear to him, Niang faltered and failed to follow his beloved, Myriam, onto that fateful ship. He has since lived with the consequences of staying, haunted by the life he might have lived abroad.
The decision Niang faced, and the one depicted in Touki Bouki, was common to many who suffered impoverished living conditions and political turmoil in colonial Senegal and throughout Africa. Decades later, similar hardships weigh on the young men in Atlantiques. Sitting before a beachside fire, and barely illuminated against the night sky, Serigne (Serigne Seck, appearing as himself) and two friends weigh the dangers of crossing the sea by pirogue, a small fishing vessel not built for deep water. Faced with unemployment and hunger at home, Serigne argues that there is no choice but to leave, even if it means risking one’s life. “Forget Europe,” a friend urges. “Let’s speak of here, Africa.” Like the shot of a rotating lighthouse lens that concludes the film, their conversation circles itself. There’s talk of family, of sacrifice, and even of magical transformation from man into fish, sometimes little more than voices in the dark. In the film’s middle section, which takes place at a cemetery, we learn that Serigne has in fact already perished at sea. A woman dabs tears from her eyes, then stares at the camera in a lengthy, steady shot. The scene is followed by another nighttime fire, nearly indistinguishable from the first, and Serigne’s words, now ghostly, are heard still wafting through the lo-fi DV air.
The elliptical structure of Atlantiques is both dreamlike and actually bookended by accounts of dreams. The first, recounted in voiceover, describes a man reaching for his mother, while the second, written in text, concerns a man’s feverish desire to throw himself into the ocean. Europe, too, is a dream, as it is for Niang, as Vietnam is for Henriette, and as the Americas are for Vanina in Snow Canon. Such visions compel the characters to act, often impulsively and at the risk of peril, but always in the direction of self-knowledge. Diop’s visual style adds to this effect. She frequently uses flashes of purple and magenta lights (both A Thousand Suns and Snow Canon have scenes in discotheques), or floods the image with a single color, to isolate characters from their environments. On the beach in Big in Vietnam, where the morning fog is indistinguishable from the light gray sand, we can see nothing but Henriette and her companion walking silently alongside each other, no longer quite in Marseille, but treading, perhaps, toward their faraway home. And standing before the projector in A Thousand Suns, his lanky frame casting a narrow black shadow on the screen, Niang tries to tell a group of children that he’s the same man they see in the film. “You’re in a dream,” they protest, “that’s not you!”
For Diop, cinema is a dream. The return to Touki Bouki in A Thousand Suns eventually compels Niang to contact Myriam, whom he has not spoken to since they parted, and who now resides in Alaska. Though their phone call is brief—Niang’s money quickly runs out—Diop abruptly transports him to the wintry climes of that distant place. It is a transition that recalls the disjunctions of L’Intrus; Denis’s influence on Diop has been profound. Suddenly shown walking across a frozen landscape, Niang is still clad in his denim shirt, and still wears his cowboy boots, which leave footsteps in the snow. He pursues Myriam, and in one enigmatic sequence, amid the mist of a waterfall, a nude woman momentarily appears. The nature of the apparition is unclear, but whether Niang travels to Alaska and sees her, or it’s a dream, doesn’t matter. The film is less interested in making that distinction than bringing the two former lovers together, at least in conversation, which we hear in voiceover. As the woman descends a snow hill, out of view, they talk of home. In words taken from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a story about an American expat living in Paris, Niang evokes the unending pain of exile: “You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”
A Thousand Suns was originally conceived in 2008, though it was not shot and completed until 2013. In the interim years, Diop made Snow Canon, Atlantiques, and Big in Vietnam. In many ways, A Thousand Suns is the culmination of those previous films, taking from Snow Canon its dreamy lyricism, the distant opportunities dreamed in Atlantiques, and the ruminative wanderings and regrets of Big in Vietnam. A Thousand Suns is also the most intimately entwined with Diop’s own family (in addition to her uncle’s film, it features her father, the musician Wasis Diop), the troubled history of Senegal, and its cinema. The film never judges Niang for the choice he made, though it prompts him to consider the one he gave up. However hesitant he is to return to the past, the encounter allows him to imagine a fuller present, which he seems to enjoy at the end, the sun bright and strong on his weathered face. His fate, as he seems to accept it, is tied to that of his country, where sometimes the places we didn’t visit, the ones we hold in our imaginations, have as profound an affect as the homes in which we settle.