Emotions were running high on the red carpet at the premiere of Banel & Adama by Ramata-Toulaye Sy. It was completely understandable. After all, it was the first feature from the Franco-Senegalese director, and her film is in the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Her 2021 short film Astel had previously won the Share Her Journey Award at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
Initially, Banel & Adama was going to compete in the Un Certain Regard competition; but a day before the announcement of the categories, Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux called Sy himself to tell her the incredible news that her film was to be in competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or. Before the festival, Frémaux described the film to me in a Zoom interview as “not only a great film, but a great voyage into another kind of cinema.”
Frémaux is not Sy’s only supporter. The audience showed a lot of love and support before the screening in greeting the 36-year-old director, who walked down the red carpet hand in hand with her two lead actors: Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo.
Ramata-Toulaye Sy is only the second Black female director ever to compete for the Palme d’Or. Franco-Senegalese director Mati Diop was the first when she presented her film Atlantics just four years ago.
During the film’s press conference, the day after the premiere, I asked the young director how she felt about the occasion. “There was a huge amount of emotion last night,” Sy said. “I did the opposite of most people and cried in the beginning instead of the end. Everything came out. I hold back my feelings on the whole – all the suffering, happiness, difficulties we had to overcome over the last two years to make this film came out yesterday. There was a huge amount of emotion to see these actors who had never left Senegal, and now here they are in France. It’s their first film, they’re non-professional. Seeing the entire team moved me as well because it was a very difficult shoot and here we are all in Cannes in competition. We didn’t expect that. It’s my first film, it’s an African film. It’s an unexpected thing to be here.”
The film opens on a blurry shot of the sun, making it look almost like a fluidly moving organic cell. We hear the words Banel and Adama over and over again spoken in hushed voices. Like the first land-dwelling animals millions of years ago, the newly married couple, Banel and Adama, emerge from the serene blue waters of a local river. They herd cattle together and tell each other stories of their ancestors. Inspired by the magical realism found in works like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Sy and her cinematographer, Amine Berrada, create lush visuals with saturated colors and the interesting landscapes of northern Senegal. When Banel and Adama’s relationship is threatened during a drought, Banel dries up like her environment, and the film’s colors slowly begin to fade.
Although Sy was born in France, she frequently spent her summers in the Senegalese village her parents were from. As an avid reader, she drew inspiration from literary greats such as Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, as well as from African folklore.
Sy proudly said, “Articles keep saying ‘Well who is she? We don’t know her’ – they don’t know who I am. I’ve been working for a long time, and I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I didn’t just turn up yesterday. I studied at film school; I wrote scripts. Nobody used to know me, but now they do!”