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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale
Ollia Horton

Filmmaker pays homage to Senegalese roots in tragic tale of love

Scene from the film "Banel & Adama" by Franco-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy, selected to run in the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, 2023. © Festival de Cannes 2023

With her first feature film “Banel & Adama”, Franco-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy has chosen to shine a light on Fulani culture. She brings a feminist voice to the story of a young married couple faced with the weight of family tradition.

Sy was one of seven women directors featured in the Cannes Film festival main competition lineup in May. Her debut feature-length film “Banel & Adama”, was released in French cinemas on Wednesday.

Working with non-professional actors in the Fula language was particularly challenging, she told RFI.

Her lead actors – Khady Mane (Banel) and Mamadou Diallo (Adama) – described how nervous they were participating in the project at the beginning. They agree that thanks to Sy’s patience, the collective effort paid off.

The pair give thoughtful, heartfelt performances as a newly married couple living in a village in the Futa-Toro region of northern Senegal.

“I wasn’t ready at all and I told myself I would never be able to do it,” Khady Mane, who plays Banel, recalls. Sy came across Mane at a market while scouting for locations in Senegal.

“With Ramata’s help, I got through the audition. The shoot wasn’t easy but she coached me”.

Director Ramata-Toulaye Sy poses for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Banel & Adama' at the 76th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 21, 2023. © Joel C Ryan / Invision / AP

Artistic influences

Although inspired by the village where Sy’s parents were from and where she spent childhood vacations, Sy says she did not want to recreate yet another cliché film about African culture.

She purposely did not approach the landscape and people with a documentary eye, but rather chose to lean into artistic expression.

Much of the imagery stems from her imagination, she explains. Each frame is like a painting, with colour and light representing emotions. The use of sounds and silence creates a dream-like effect somewhere between fantasy and reality.

Sy says her influences come from literature and painting.

“Toni Morrison’s magic realism, Racine and his tragedies, Maya Angelou and her poetry, but also Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Kerry James Marshall and Amoako Boafo’s paintings. The griot stories my mother told me as a child also inspire me,” she says in an interview with the Cannes festival organisers.

Banel is a strong-headed and fiercely independent woman, not afraid of being unlikeable, Sy says.

She wears men’s clothes and doesn’t want to have children. Her passion for Adama is selfish to the extent that it drives her to madness.

Sy says she took inspiration from mythical characters such as Medea and Lady Macbeth as well as her own personality that has “a touch of craziness like Banel”.

Khady Mane who plays Banel in the film "Banel & Adama", by Franco-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy, selected in the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2023. © Festival de Cannes 2023

Double culture challenge

By contrast, Adama represents the director’s softer side and is a nod to her double culture. Through him, she wants to show the “sensitive side to African men” not often explored in popular culture.

Banel and Adama’s relationship is put to the test as Banel expresses a desire to live outside the community. Adama is torn between his love for Banel and the need to take on the role of village chief, according to tradition.

Following the path of a classical tragedy, Banel’s intense anger grows and is blamed for bringing about an apocalyptic drought that devastates life in the village.

The Cannes 2023 festival was a big year for African cinema with two films in competition and more than ten feature films in parallel sections, while Moroccan director Maryam Touzani and Zambian director Rungano Nyoni were members of the jury.

Being present in Cannes was a huge honour, Sy says, adding she is happy that African films are finally picking up more recognition from Western countries.

“Senegalese people are very proud and supportive, and they love seeing their culture and traditions shared with other countries,” she says.

“We were congratulated by the president and the culture minister who said the film was an honour for them”.

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