Senegalese and French director Ramata-Toulaye Sy is only the second Black woman to make it into Competition in Cannes. Her debut feature, Banel & Adama, which had its debut Saturday, follows in the footsteps of Mati Diop’s 2019 Atlantics.
Sy draws on her roots in the Fulani, or Peul, culture of the Futa region in northern Senegal for her magic-realist film about a young couple whose passion brings chaos to their remote rural community. “The people of Futa have the reputation of being very dignified and sticking to their community,” says Sy, who was born and grew up in France. “I was raised in the Fulani tradition at home and French culture outside.”
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Inspiration for Banel & Adama came from a desire to create a tragic African heroine on par with Pierre Corneille’s Médée or Jean Racine’s Phèdre. “We don’t really have these mythical, tragic characters, or we do, but very few,” says Sy, who wrote the screenplay as her graduation work for the French film school La Fémis, where she studied screenwriting.
“I didn’t want to direct. Literature and writing are my passion,” she says, citing her favorite authors as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jesmyn Ward, as well as William Faulkner. But tragedy pushed Sy into the director’s chair after French producer Éric Névé, who had acquired the screenplay and was trying to get the project off the ground, died suddenly in 2019. “He was my godfather in the cinema world. His wife, Maud Leclair, said, ‘You need to do this for Eric,’ and so I did it for him as an homage.”
France’s National Cinema Centre encouraged Sy to first make a short film before embarking on a feature, making it a proviso for funding on the feature.
She wrote the screenplay for the short film Astel in three weeks over the Covid lockdown and shot it in November 2021. It went on to win prizes at Toronto and Clermont-Ferrand.
“I didn’t have time to go festivals because I was moved straight on to the feature,” she says. “I have to thank the CNC for that because while I had been on sets, I’d never run one. It helped me survive the feature and build my crew.”
Eighty percent of the crew on the feature are Senegalese, joined by Moroccan cinematographer Amine Berrada, with the rest mainly hailing from France. “It was important that at least three-quarters of my crew were Senegalese,” Sy says.
Mixing 17th-century literary influences with Senegalese storytelling traditions, Sy describes her film as “a patchwork” representing different parts of her identity. “Yes, I was born in France, and I am culturally French, but I am above all African because I am Black and my parents come from Senegal. I also consider myself a French cineaste.”
Sy notes that she is following in the wake of three other female filmmakers of French-Senegalese origin to have made their mark in recent years: Mati Diop, Maïmouna Doucouré and Alice Diop. “I know they are going to compare us even though our stories and the genres in which we tell the are completely different,” says Sy.
Where they converge, she says is in their creation of strong Black female characters. “For a long time, we were invisible or looked upon badly or despised or rejected even in our own communities. Today, we’re not scared to talk about Black feminine power. We were lacking those strong Black women in France, those characters you find in Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou,” she says.
But beyond questions of origin and identity, Sy’s biggest hope for the film is that it will have universal appeal. “I want all women to recognize themselves in the character of Banel, not only Black women but white women, Afghan women, Iranian women, and American women, in the same way, there are universal films set in the United States, in which I recognize myself even if they’re American characters,” she says. “We need to do the same thing out of Africa. Just because a film is African with Black characters, it doesn’t mean white spectators can’t recognize themselves in those films, in the same way, we recognize ourselves in films where the characters are predominantly white.”
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