One of the best things about the Toronto International Film Festival is the way that it allows a large, diverse group of people to come together and experience cinema from all around the world. Unlike other festivals with more cost restrictions, TIFF is the most accessible festival in the world to attend in order to immerse yourself with the best films the world has to offer.
As a Black American woman of Jamaican descent, I am deeply invested in experiencing stories from across the African diaspora. With such a rich history, I feel as if I am always playing catch-up to fill in the blanks of my people’s past and present across the world. Last year at TIFF, I had the pleasure of watching Rafika, a heart-melting lesbian love story from Kenya. This year I managed to catch two fantastic African films: Mati Diop’s Senegalese supernatural love story Atlantics and Jenna Bass’s South African neo-noir Western, Flatland.
There is an overlap between the cultural observations of Atlantics and Flatland, two films about women in conflict with tradition who are trying to forge a path to the future. Faced with a lifetime of unhappiness with men they don’t love, heroines Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and Natalie (Nicole Furtuin) participate in quiet rebellions against their family and friends, trying to softly push their fate in another direction. The world they were born into needs to change, and the best they can do is use whatever power they have to break away.
Sane and Furtuin turn in subtle, contemplative performances. Their characters aren’t great with words, but their expressive eyes do most of the speaking for them. The men in their lives see them as pliable, and they appear to be at first glance. But as their stories progress each heroine shows an unwavering resolve, and the people around them slowly realize their strength.
Diop is confident in her feature film debut. Atlantics is a somber, dreamlike affair. Ada is in love with the poor and passionate Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) but is forced to marry the rich, boring Omar (Babacar Sylla). Souleiman, frustrated with his lack of money and the love of his life, sets out to sea for Spain before Ada’s wedding. But when Ada’s marriage bed is set on fire, a headstrong young detective (Amadou Mbow) is convinced Souleiman has returned for Ada.
Much more than a love story, Atlantics weaves together a narrative of class tension, highlighting the entitlement of the rich and how their immoral actions are bolstered by government corruption. In a society with rampant economic inequality, marriage can be a shackle for women, forcing them to choose between wealth and happiness. It’s romantic to believe that love can live and thrive on its own without familial or societal pressures, but Atlantics is pragmatic about the limits of earthly love, hinting at a more lasting spiritual connection.
With her third feature, Bass (High Fantasy) tells a different kind of love story. In Flatland, there is no other man. Natalie marries Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse), but her true love is her horse Oumie. Since the death of her mother, Natalie has been referring to her beloved horse as “Ma”, using her as a confidante. When asked why she prefers horses over humans, Natalie gives a fascinating answer: “Horses forgive.”
Sexually assaulted by her husband and accosted by a meddling preist, Natalie rides Ma through the wilderness with her pregnant best friend Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout). They are pursued by Captain Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi), a stylish detective with a tragic love story of her own. What follows is a tragic, comedic South African riff on Thelma & Louise with a searing critique of men, whiteness, and post-Apartheid culture.
Flatland is often uneven, switching from comedy to devastating drama in the blink of an eye. But there’s something so raw about a film unafraid to be goofy and serious all at once, reminding us of the inherent absurdity of modern life. It’s a film that knows love doesn’t always conquer all, but it would be nice if it won out every once in a while.
Atlantics and Flatland make for a fascinating double feature. Both films deftly illustrate the conflict between an old and new Africa, as well as the emotional fallout of such a drastic shift in cultural sensibilities. Diop and Bass are enormous talents, and I cannot wait to see their future films.