IN MY ROOM by Mati Diop: No Lockdown in the Imagination
Made entirely of footage taken during quarantine, Mati Diop’s latest short film is a welcome reflection on the experience of confinement.
IN MY ROOM (2020) begins with Mati Diop opening the blinds in what we presume is her living room. Still dawn outside, she moves methodically from blind to blind with the diligent intent of someone determined to pass the time. Each window pane reveals a little more of her view outside; the neighbouring apartment blocks set against the early morning sky. The only subject that features in Diop’s latest short is herself; the only location is her own apartment. Composed entirely of footage that Diop took of herself while in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, IN MY ROOM is a welcome reflection on the experience of confinement.
The French-Senegalese director is known for her 2019 debut Atlantics (currently on Netflix), which made her the first black female director to premier in competition at Cannes Film Festival, and subsequently won the Grand Prix. IN MY ROOM, commissioned as part of the Italian high fashion brand Miu Miu’s series of films entitled ‘Women’s Tales’, is very different to Atlantics. However, it demonstrates the same talent for storytelling as Diop’s debut feature film. With similar intimacy, Diop tells the story of confinement. A story that, while previously belonging only to certain groups of people, has since become familiar to all.
Diop intertwines the footage she took during lockdown with audio recorded when visiting her elderly grandmother, Maji, in the months before she passed away. Maji herself, for reasons unknown to the viewer, was confined to her apartment in Paris for twenty years. When Diop opens an image of Maji on her laptop, we are briefly able to put a face to the voice that we continue to hear throughout the film; we see a glamorous woman, with big, perfectly-styled hair and red-painted nails, holding a cigarette and looking into the camera with a warm and loving smile.
With a delicate sense of empathy, Diop aligns her experiences with those of her grandmother. In some respects, Diop’s film communicates her renewed compassion for Maji, having found herself in a similar position. Their stories share an understanding of the frustration of isolation. By interlacing the perspectives of the two women, Diop reflects on their shared experience of confinement, rather than one that is bound to particular individual circumstances.
Indeed time, in both the audio recordings and the visual footage, is unstructured. There is no rhythm or repetition to propel the film along. IN MY ROOM breaks from the regimented routine of a busy schedule and structured days, and instead proceeds without purpose or routine; aimless, ambling.
We hear Maji and Diop flit between different conversation topics. They discuss daily logistical matters such as groceries and medication; they comment on the sunshine outside; Maji relays memories of her childhood growing up during the Second World War in occupied France, becoming nostalgic for friends she has been unable to see in years. We listen to her hesitate, lose her train of thought, and then pick it back up again, eventually concluding: “And we are here…we do nothing…the days go by.”
This same sentiment also pervades Diop’s visual footage; other than the passing of the days, there is little structure or narrative progression to the sequences of edited images. They proceed without purpose; a curtain blows in the wind outside the open window of a neighbouring apartment block, casting rippled shadows onto the building’s exterior. We watch as the days and nights come and go, punctuated only by the changes in weather and the movements of the sun; sunrise, sunset, sunrise again. By the end of the film, the days have all merged into one.
A large part of the film focuses on Diop passing her time (this being the activity that drew her to her film camera during lockdown in the first place). We watch her staring out of her kitchen window from the windowsill, daydreaming at her writing desk, and scrolling through her phone in bed. There is one sequence that assembles shots of others in neighbouring apartment blocks, all engaged in the same activity; passing the time. We see one neighbour open the fridge only to close it again; another, like Diop behind her camera, watches the night unfold from their window; and another makes hand shadows dance across the wall - their confinement has become the thing that connects them.
But IN MY ROOM is also a comforting reminder that, even when physically confined, the mind is able to exceed those limits. Indeed, the film is littered with moments in which Diop and Maji are transported to other realms by the limitless boundaries of their imaginations.
We feel this most strongly when Diop and Maji listen to a playback of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ together. The music invites them to transcend their present, exporting them from Maji’s living room to the magical opera house of their minds, where nineteenth century Parisian courtesans wear their lavish costumes. Maji imagines the concert halls where her parents often went, and where they might have heard the same piece. Diop starts to sing along, encouraged by Maji who tells her: ‘You see, you’re a musician without knowing it.’
While listening to Verdi’s opera, we see several sequences of images populated with glimmers of light; the sunlight reflecting off the glass of distant apartment blocks, off the set of keys lying on Diop’s writing desk, and off the diamante stitched into the Miu Miu dresses hanging in her room, delivered to her apartment earlier on. These crystalline images hold some of those transcendental qualities of Verdi’s opera; as if this reflective glimmer, that crystal-like flicker, infuses Diop’s image with the same life-affirming force that the two women feel when listening to ‘La Traviata’.
It is also Diop’s imagination that brings playfulness to her confinement; for example when she dresses up in red high heels and a leopard print coat and dances to Afro-Zouk, a small disco ball projecting colours onto the walls of her bedroom-turned-nightclub; or when she puts on one of the Miu Miu dresses and play-acts an opera singer performing another section of ‘La Traviata’, her dress glimmering as flashes of lightning illuminate the night sky.
Given this playful aspect to IN MY ROOM, it is fitting that the credits attribute the music to ‘DEAN BLUNT & GIUSEPPE VERDI’ - an unlikely collaboration and in whose unlikelihood Diop revels. Dean Blunt, known both for his solo work as well as his partner-based projects Hype Williams and Babyfather, has been described as elusive, prolific, genre-defying, and as ‘The Trickster God of the UK Music Scene’ by Reddit users. To collaborate with Dean Blunt on her film is to bring - amongst other things - a touch of playfulness to the aural landscape.
As the film closes, we listen to the computer-generated strings of Blunt’s original compositions; it is hopeful, playful, and melancholic. Accompanying the strings, we see shots of gliding seagulls, the camera tracking their movements through the sky as they play outside the apartment blocks, taking advantage of the tranquility that has temporarily been left for them by the humans unable to leave their homes.
Rather than allowing the physical restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic to impact her filmmaking (like so many other productions put on hold), Diop immerses herself in the details around her, opening up expansive worlds from her seemingly mundane surroundings. With immense talent, Diop returns to the essence of her relationship with cinema: to the act of filming and the entwinement of audio and visual pushing the medium in new directions. The result is a nuanced and welcome exploration of the experience of confinement that instils both warmth and inspiration in its viewer.
Sofia Lyall is a writer, currently based in Cambridge, UK. She has a degree in German Studies, specialising in postcolonial literatures, and is a committed prison abolitionist. Besides writing, she enjoys walking in forests and listening to music. Follow her news on Instagram.