A rookie filmmaker stands out in Cannes competition with a Senegalese drama
CANNES, France — Most of the filmmakers in the Cannes Film Festival’s top competition are well-known directors who have been around for decades. A dramatic exception this year is Ramata-Toulaye Sy, a Franco-Senegalese filmmaker whose debut film, “Banel & Adama”, landed among the 21 films in the running for the Palme d’Or.
“It’s only now that I realize competing means competing,” Sy said with a laugh, in an interview shortly after “Banel & Adama” created in Cannes. “Now that we’re really in the middle of it all, I realize there’s a lot of passion flowing.”
Sy, 36, is the only debutant on Cannes’ mainline lineup this year. She is also only the second black female director to compete for the Palme, after Mati Diop, also a Franco-Senegalese filmmaker, whose “Atlantics” debuted in 2019. For Sy, who grew up in Paris, it’s not not a significant distinction.
“I’m a filmmaker and I really wish we would stop being seen as women, as black or Arab or Asian,” Sy said.
In “Banel & Adama”, also the only film shot in Africa in competition for the Palme this year, Sy offers 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 move away from local traditions. Adama is about to become a village chief but is not interested in doing so. Banel dreams of living outside the village, in a house buried under a mountain of sand.
As Banel and Adama work slowly sweeping up the sand, their desire to live alone causes anguish in the village, especially when a draft arrives that some take as a curse to their independence. Although often opaque, the film largely stays with the psychology of Banel, whose determination grows increasingly dark.
“I was quite reluctant at first to acknowledge that Banel is me,” says Sy. “Now I have to admit it’s definitely me.” I see myself, my questions, my fight in his journey. How to become an individual within a community is really my own question.
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 like Toni Morrison’s “Sula” and Elena Frenate’s “My Brilliant Friend” inspired “Banel & Adama.
“The love story was a pretext to deal with the myth,” she says. “I wanted to have this kind of mythological female character that you find in Greek tragedy.”
Sy co-wrote “Notre-Dame du Nil” by Atiq Rahimi and “Sibel” by Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti, both presented at international festivals. His first short film, “Astel”, was well received.
But few prepared her for the stress of filming in rural Senegal. Along with the heat, sandstorms and bouts of illness among the crew, Sy struggled to find his Banel. In the end, she found Mane while walking around.
“We had all the actors except her. We started five months before shooting and a month before shooting we still didn’t have her. One day I was walking down the street and my eyes fixed on this girl” , says Sy. “It was the way she looked at me. His gaze had something a little wise and a little crazy.
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