First-time filmmaker makes a mark in Cannes competition with a Senegalese drama

French-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy's first film Banel & Adama is competing for the coveted Palme d'Or

French-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy is the only first-timer in the festival's main line-up this year. AFP
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Most filmmakers in the Cannes Film Festival's top-rung competition line-up are well-known directors who have been around for decades. One exception this year is Ramata-Toulaye Sy, a French-Senegalese filmmaker whose first film, Banel & Adama, landed among the 21 films competing for the Palme d'Or.

“It’s only now that I realise that being in competition means being in a competition,” Sy said, laughing, in an interview shortly after Banel & Adama premiered in Cannes. “Now that we’re really in the middle of it, I realise there’s a lot of passion going around.”

Sy, 36, is the only first-timer in Cannes' main line-up this year. She is the second Black female director to ever compete for the Palme, following Mati Diop, also a French-Senegalese filmmaker, whose Atlantics debuted in 2019. For the Paris-raised Sy, it's not a distinction of significance.

“I’m a filmmaker and I really wish we stopped being counted as women, as Black or Arab or Asian,” said Sy.

In Banel & Adama, also the only Africa-set film competing for the Palme this year, Sy crafts a radiant and languorous fable tinged with myth and tragedy.

Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) are a deeply in love married couple living in a small village in northern Senegal. In their intimate romantic idyll, they wish to pull away from the local traditions. Adama is set to become village chief but is uninterested in doing so. Banel dreams of living outside the village, in a home buried under a mountain of sand.

While Banel and Adama slowly work to sweep away the sand, their yearning to live on their own causes angst in the village, especially when a draught arrives that some take as a curse for their independence. Though often opaque, the film stays largely with the psychology of Banel, whose single-mindedness grows increasingly dark.

“I was quite reluctant at the start to acknowledge that Banel is me,” says Sy. “Now I have to confess that it’s definitely me. I see myself, my questions, my struggle in her journey. How to become an individual inside a community is really my own question.”

Sy began writing Banel & Adama in 2014 as a student at La Femis, 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 Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend inspired Banel & Adama.

“The love story was a pretext for to deal with myth,” she says. “I wanted to have this kind of mythological female character that you find in Greek tragedy."

Sy co-wrote Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile and Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s Sibel – both of which played at international festivals. Her first short film, Astel, was well-received.

But little prepared her for the stresses of shooting in rural Senegal. Along with heat, sandstorms and bouts of illness among the crew, Sy struggled to find her Banel. In the end, she found Mane while walking around.

“We had all the cast except for her. We started five months before shooting and one month before shooting we still didn’t have her. One day I was walking down the street and my eyes locked on this girl,” says Sy. “It was the way that she looked at me. Her gaze had something a bit wise and a bit crazy.”

Updated: May 22, 2023, 7:42 AM