Film

Banel & Adama creator Ramata-Toulaye Sy on why Africa is so much more than its tragedies

The filmmaker wants it to be viewed not just as a love letter to Africa, but as a universal story

Ramata-Toulaye Sy

Image: ©-Philippe-Quaisse-Pasco&co

French Senegalese writer and director Ramata-Toulaye Sy is practically glowing. On a Zoom call with the Big Issue, her eyes crinkle at the corners as she recalls how she swore she’d write, not just a love story, but an African love story and that it would be “the most beautiful and the most greatest love story” ever to be told. 

The result is her first feature film, Banel & Adama, which was received with acclaim at Cannes last year when Sy became only the second Black woman in history to be nominated for the Palme d’Or. On the day that we speak, she is waiting to hear the outcome of her Oscar nomination as Senegal’s entry for Best International Feature Film. 

It’s a hugely impressive start for the 37-year-old, but she insists there is much more still to aim for. 

“It’s good but not good because we are still counting,” she says. “There’s still a long way to go, especially for women.”

Born and raised in Paris, Sy studied screenwriting at La Fémis film and television school, graduating in 2015. In 2021, she directed her first short film, Astel – also set in Senegal – which was selected in more than 80 festivals and pre-selected for the 2023 César Awards. 

Banel & Adama follows a young couple who live in a remote village steeped in tradition in the north of Senegal. When they fall in love and marry, they cause disquiet within the local community for rejecting the roles that are expected of them: Adama renounces his destiny to become village chief, while Banel refuses to do the laundry or work in the fields with the other women. Most shocking of all, she is adamant that she does not want children.

With artful cinematography and striking performances from debut actors Khady Mane as Banel, and Mamadou Diallo who plays Adama, the story charts a steady descent into collective madness. 

When a drought causes crops to fail and livestock to die, superstitious villagers turn against Banel and Adama, blaming their unconventional ways for bringing a curse upon them.

Sy describes her story as being a “100% African point of view” and devoid of the “white gaze” that normally frames stories in the region. It’s also an opportunity for her to reference the encroaching drought and its desperate effects in many parts of the continent as a result of climate change.

Banel and Adama
Banel and Adama is in cinemas from 15 March

She wants the film to be viewed not just as a love letter to Africa, but as a universal story; something for all to understand and relate to.  

Sy’s brow furrows as she recalls her own childhood cinematic influences. The films she saw of Africa only really told stories of immigration, poverty, war, and oppressed women. Growing up in Paris, the Senegalese part of her identity was disappointed by this one-dimensional view.  

“I never heard about an African love story and that’s so weird!” she exclaims. “We need to bring new voices and tell new stories… and not stories just about war.”  

Because Africa is more than its tragedies. Instead, she says, its filmmakers are “really creative and really bold and they’re not afraid to propose new ideas and to be a little bit crazy in their storytelling”.  

Writing a love story felt for her like a political gesture as it “tells the world that African people can love”.  

Aside from this deliberate portrayal of African joy, the film’s focus on the complex and at times unlikeable Banel provides another subversion of expectations.  

“For me, it was really important to have an unlikeable black female character,” says Sy.

“I think we accept a white unlikeable female character – like Gone Girl or Killing Eve. But when you have a black female character you expect her to be fragile, or a victim, or oppressed.  

“Why not complex? Why can we not be deep?”  

Banel & Adama takes inspiration from the poetic tragedies of Racine and Shakespeare – Sy says she wanted to “write a story where Juliet becomes Lady Macbeth”.  

Thus we see Banel’s transformation gradually creates conflict with her community and her husband. Yet hers is not a story about emancipation.  

“When you see Banel at the beginning of the movie I think she’s already free. Though she has difficulties with her family and community, she is strong and asserts herself.”  

Instead, Sy intended Banel’s struggle to represent something that she sees as a universal issue for all women.  

“Banel says twice in the movie ‘look at me’ and I think it’s a cry of the heart to say ‘look at me’ as a woman, you know? Help me to be a woman in this world.”  

On what it means to be a woman in both Sy’s world and Banel’s is the key to what motivates them both.  

Sy is finding a way to be her own kind of director, one who reframes narratives around Africa and spotlights them on a global stage. 

She admits that her own story, just like Banel’s, is about a woman who is seeking perfection from life.  

“Banel is really me, you know? Banel is just looking for a way to be a woman. And in my life, I’m looking for a way to be a woman. Not as the definition of the woman you can find, but as my own definition.”  

Banel & Adama is in cinemas from 15 March.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play


Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Civil War director Alex Garland on ChatGPT, 28 Years Later and why Britain is like a 'pet cat'
Civil War, Alex Garland
Film

Civil War director Alex Garland on ChatGPT, 28 Years Later and why Britain is like a 'pet cat'

From The Iron Claw to Opponent: How wrestling films began grappling with real issues
Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Zac Efron as the tragic Van Erich wrestling family in The Iron Claw
Film

From The Iron Claw to Opponent: How wrestling films began grappling with real issues

Gillian Anderson, Billie Piper and Rufus Sewell on recreating Prince Andrew's car-crash interview in Scoop
Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew and Gillian Anderson as Emily Maitlis
Film

Gillian Anderson, Billie Piper and Rufus Sewell on recreating Prince Andrew's car-crash interview in Scoop

Io Capitano director Matteo Garrone on why a refugee's journey is so much more than small boats
Film

Io Capitano director Matteo Garrone on why a refugee's journey is so much more than small boats

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know