A first-time filmmaker makes a mark in the Cannes competition with a Senegalese drama
CANNES, France — Most of the filmmakers are in it at the Cannes Film Festival top-ranked competition line-up well-known directors who have been around for decades. One dramatic exception this year is Ramata-Toulaye Sy, a French-Senegalese filmmaker whose first film, “Banel & Adama” was among the 21 films competing for the Palme d’Or.
“I just realized that being in competition is being in competition,” Sy said with a laugh in an interview shortly after Banel. & Adama” premiere in Cannes. “Now that we’re really in the middle of it, I realize there’s a lot of passion.
Sy, 36, is the only first-team player in Cannes’ main team this year. She is also only the second black female director to ever compete for the Palme Mati Diop, also a French-Senegalese filmmaker, whose film “Atlantics” debuted in 2019. For Sy, who grew up in Paris, this does not mean a significant difference.
“I’m a filmmaker and I really want us to stop being seen as women, black, Arab or Asian,” Sy said.
The “Banel & Adama”, which is also the only film set in Africa to compete for the Palm this year, Sy creates a radiant and languid tale laced with myth and tragedy.
Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) are a deeply in love couple living in a small village in the north of Senegal. In their intimate romantic idyll, they want to distance themselves from local traditions. Adama becomes the leader of the village, but he doesn’t care. Banel dreams of living outside the village, in a home buried under a sand dune.
As Banel and Adama slowly work to sweep away the sand, their desire for a life of their own creates anxiety in the village, especially when a draft arrives that some see as a curse on their independence. Although often opaque, the film largely sticks with Banel’s psychology, whose single-mindedness grows increasingly dark.
“In the beginning, I was very reluctant to admit that Banel was me,” says Sy. “Now I have to admit it’s definitely me. I see myself, my questions, my struggle on his path. My question is how to become an individual within a community.”
Sy started writing “Banel & Adama” in 2014 as a student at La Fémis, the French film school. Sy, the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, says she was first drawn to literature. Novels such as Toni Morrison’s ‘Sula’ and Elena Frenate’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ inspired ‘Banel’ and Adama.”
“The love story was an excuse to deal with the myth,” he says. “I wanted to have a mythological female character like you would find in Greek tragedies.”
Sy co-wrote Atiq Rahimi’s “Our Lady of the Nile” and Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s “Sibel,” both of which played at international festivals. His first short film “Astel” was well received.
But it did little to prepare him for the stress of shooting in rural Senegal. In addition to the heat, sandstorms, and illness among the crew, Sy struggled to find Banel. He eventually found Mane while walking.
“We had all the cast except him. We started five months before the shoot and a month before the shoot we still didn’t have it. One day I was walking down the street and my eyes fell on this girl,” says Sy. “That’s how he looked at me.” There was something in his eyes that was a little wise and a little crazy.