Mati Diop photo: © Brigitte Lacombe
Close to the beginning of Mati Diop’s Mille Soleils (2013), Magaye Niang, the film’s protagonist, takes a taxi through Dakar. Through the passenger window of the car, we see the late evening sun just above the sea, about to disappear into it, a crimson circle before the yellow sky and pale blue water. As the car moves through the cityscape, the sun keeps disappearing and reappearing, emerging from the shadows of dunes, peoples, motorbikes and palms again and again, a new version of the sun each time you see it. There are countless suns in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s final film La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil (1999), all the thousands of copies of the Le Soleil newspaper sold across Dakar by children from the street, including a newcomer to the trade, a girl called Sili who walks with a crutch and whose determination is invigorating, even inspirational. The sun as information, the sun as livelihood, the sun as a calling, a new version of the sun each time you think about it. Different conceptualisations, different times, different sensibilities, yet it’s still the same sun, one of the many multivalent images, fragments of undeniable reality, or seemingly fixed objects that these related, yet so distinct directors are able to bend into new shapes at will.
The most overt relationship between Djibril Diop Mambéty and Mati Diop is that of family. She is his niece and her father, musician Wasis Diop, contributed the soundtrack to his brother’s features Touki Bouki (1973) and Hyènes (1992). Mati Diop even examines this bond, her uncle’s legacy and its effect on her own filmmaking by extension in Mille Soleils, which returns Magaye Niang, protagonist of Touki Bouki, to the streets of Dakar 40 years after he first roamed them, where a screening of the now-classic film just so happens to be taking place. Proceeding from this point of overt intersection between two filmmaking eras and careers, the “Djibril Diop Mambéty and Mati Diop: Different Versions of the Same Sun” series invites Madrid audiences to discover the work of an African master by way of an gifted talent still at the start of her career and vice versa. Aside from family connections, a probing interest in the city of Dakar, its streets, atmosphere, colours, light, patterns, textures, hopes and longings forms another area of kinship between the two filmographies, even if Mati Diop’s films have hardly just stayed in Senegal. Indeed, while certain subtle similarities and echoes between the work of uncle and niece can be teased out, their differences are also self-evident, with each growing up on different continents, receiving different degrees of training and making their films in contexts that can hardly be more distinct, whether in terms of production conditions, the shooting mediums in standard use in their respective eras, the position of cinema in terms of its history and modes of consumption and the political state of the external reality which both draw on so heavily in their work.
Djibril Diop Mambéty was born in Colobane, Senegal, in 1945, a town which would later form the setting for Hyènes and is today on the edge of Dakar’s urban sprawl. He studied acting and worked in theatre before making his first film, the short Contras' City (1969), at the age of 24 without any formal training in cinema. This was followed by another short, Badou Boy (1970), before he made his feature debut with Touki Bouki, a Nouvelle-Vague-inflected tale of young fashionable couple on the run in Dakar who dream of Europe that has since been hailed as one of the greatest African films of all time. Despite the film’s acclaim, including a hard-won premiere at Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, it was to be nearly 20 years before Diop Mambéty would make another feature, with only the short Parlons grand-mère (1989) serving as a stopgap in between. Hyènes, an astute, devastating adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit of the Ancient Lady that injects the ambivalences of consumerism, the World Bank and post-colonial African realities into the classic Swiss play, was also received rapturously and seemed to usher in a new phase in Diop Mambéty’s career.
Yet his planned trilogy of medium-length films about “the people of the streets”, the “only true, consistent, unaffected people in the world, for whom every morning brings the same question: how to preserve what is essential to themselves”, as he himself put it, was unable to be completed. Following Le Franc (1994), an arch, fragmented comedy about the travails of a lottery winner trying to get his prize, Diop Mambéty died prematurely, at the age of 53, in Paris while editing La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil, a joyful work of profound humanism that promised another new turn in a career cut tragically short. While elements of all his films have their origins in different parts of the Western (film) canon, Diop Mambéty was very much focused on reconfiguring them for the African context to create a cinema all of his own, which may be one reason for the lasting resonance of his work. To return to his own words, “one has to choose between engaging in stylistic research or the mere recording of facts. I feel that a filmmaker must go beyond the recording of facts. Moreover, I believe that Africans, in particular, must reinvent cinema. It will be a difficult task because our viewing audience is used to a specific film language, but a choice has to be made: either one is very popular and one talks to people in a simple and plain manner, or else one searches for an African film language that would exclude chattering and focus more on how to make use of visuals and sounds.”
Mati Diop was born in Paris in 1982 and first received attention as an actress, making her screen debut in 35 Shots of Rum by Claire Denis. Following some self-funded video work, she went on to attend Le Fresnoy and completed her first short Atlantiques (2009) there, which went on to win the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Centred on a group of young Senegalese, discussing their hopes of crossing the sea in search of a better life and expressing a desire for change, this assured debut already exhibits one of the same constants that runs through Diop’s entire oeuvre, including the aforementioned Mille Soleils and Big in Vietnam (2011): the political situation of those not usually given a voice, the fates and feelings of characters in (economically-dictated) transit, the mechanisms of their desire and the way in which their identities are shaped by this state of transit. Her cinema is one of constant movement, whether physical, emotional, and even fantastical or imagined. Between documentary and fiction, the concrete and the spectral, Diop's films always capture a particular state of fragility, the twilight of a setting sun, waiting for another to be born.
Her celebrated feature-debut Atlantique (2019), which has a degree of overlap with the earlier, similarly titled short, screened in the Cannes Competition and walked off with the Grand Prix, continues this trend, albeit on a bigger canvas and augmented with the suspense and mystery of a ghost story. The continued necessity to talk about Mati Diop being the first Black woman to be nominated for the Palme d’Or would unfortunately suggest that not all that much has changed since her uncle’s time in terms of the visibility of Black cinema. The film’s success on the Croisette and its subsequent high profile sale to Netflix has meant that Diop’s next career step has been even more eagerly awaited, which is why we are proud to also be presenting her most recent work In My Room (2020) in cinemas as part of the series. Made during the Paris lockdown last year, the short aptly functions as a reflection on her own practice as a filmmaker and also marks a return to family biography, this time in the form of recollections on the part of her grandmother.
James Lattimer and Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria