Ramata-Toulaye Sy, debut Filmmaker Leaves an Impression in Cannes Competition with a Senegalese Drama

Ramata-Toulaye Sy, a French-Senegalese director whose debut film, “Banel & Adama,” this year made a difference in the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. The film was selected as one of the 21 contenders for the Palme d’Or this year, stands out as a notable exception. The majority of the filmmakers competing in the top tier of the Cannes Film Festival are well-known directors who have been in the film industry for many years.

Sy, at 36, is the only first time film maker who line up this year’s Cannes festival. 2nd only to Mati Diop, a French-Senegalese director whose “Atlantics” appeared in 2019, is the only other Black woman to have ever competed for the Palme. Her picture “Atlantics” was released in 2019. Sy, who was raised in Paris, does not see this divergence to be significant.

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

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“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,’ the sole film set in Africa among this year’s Palme contenders, Sy weaves a luminous and poetic tale infused with myth and tragedy.

The story revolves around Banel (played by Khady Mane) and Adama (played by Mamadou Diallo), a deeply devoted married couple residing in a small village in northern Senegal. In their intimate and romantic haven, they yearn to break free from local traditions. Adama is expected to become the village chief, but he lacks interest in assuming the role. Banel dreams of leaving the village and residing in a home buried beneath a mountain of sand. As Banel and Adama gradually work to clear the sand, their desire for independence sparks turmoil within the village—especially when a drought befalls them, perceived by some as a curse brought on by their pursuit of freedom. Though often enigmatic, the film primarily delves into Banel’s psyche, as her relentless determination takes on a progressively darker tone.

Sy admitted,“I was quite reluctant at the start to acknowledge that Banel is me,”.“Now I have to confess that it’s definitely me. I see myself, my questions, my struggle in her journey. How to do become an individual inside a community is really my own question.” Sy commenced writing ‘Banel & Adama’ in 2014 while studying at La Fémis, the renowned French film school. As the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, Sy’s initial passion lay in literature. Novels like Toni Morrison’s ‘Sula’ and Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ served as inspiration for ‘Banel & Adama.

“The love story was a pretext for to deal with myth,” quoted Sy. “I wanted to have this kind of mythological female character that you find in Greek tragedy.” Prior to her directorial debut, Sy co-wrote ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ by Atiq Rahimi and ‘Sibel’ by Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti, both of which received acclaim at international film festivals. Her first short film, ‘Astel,’ was also well-received.

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Nonetheless, with little preparation of challenges that she will face while shooting in rural Senegal, the shooting began. Facing stressing situation like to endure intense heat, sandstorms, and crew illnesses, Sy faced difficulty in casting the role of Banel. Eventually, she encountered Mane while strolling down the street.

“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,” stated Sy. “It was the way that she looked at me. Her gaze had something a bit wise and a bit crazy.”

Finding Mane turned out to be a pivotal moment for Sy and the film. Mane’s portrayal of Banel brought depth and authenticity to the character, enhancing the overall impact of the narrative.

As the Cannes Film Festival embraces diverse voices and stories, Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s “Banel & Adama” stands out as a testament to her talent and vision. Breaking barriers as a first-time filmmaker and representing a minority perspective, Sy’s film adds a fresh and captivating voice to the prestigious competition.

As many filmmakers ultimate aspiration are for stories to be recognized and to connect to a wider audience, Sy’s “Banel & Adam”, thus secured a place in the Cannes Festival.

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