Fear, Hope, and Joy: Ramata-Toulaye Sy on Banel and Adama


When “Banel & Adama” premiered in competition at Cannes Film Festival in 2023, French-Senegalese writer/director Ramata-Toulaye Sy was in rare company. Her film was the only debut feature among a competition featuring venerated filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Todd Haynes, Ken Loach, Wim Wenders, etc. And apart from Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s incredible documentary “Four Daughters,” it was also the only film with African roots to compete for the Palme d’Or that year. Sy’s inventive film quickly proved it belonged. 

In this tragic story about star-crossed lovers, Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) are obsessed with one another. She was originally the wife of Adama’s brother before he mysteriously drowned in a well. Despite that matrimony, she has always wanted to be with Adama. Now, together, they plan to build a life for each other by digging up a house on the outskirts of town buried underneath the sand. The proposed move represents a startling break with the tradition set by their village. Banel further disrupts convention by deciding she doesn’t want to have children. Her desires split Adama: Does he fulfill his responsibilities as Chief by staying in town and taking another wife so he might produce an heir? Should he renounce his responsibilities and run off with Banel? Amid the social disorder caused by Banel and Adama putting their relationship ahead of the community, a major drought takes hold, many of the village’s men leave, and a wicked, apocalyptic sandstorm sweeps through. 

Handsomely shot on location in the face of a beautiful Senegalese landscape, soundtracked to a stressful piano score, Sy’s film infuses classical storytelling elements into a magical realist tale to reimagine what makes an African film. Sy spoke with RogerEbert.com over Zoom to discuss how climate change affects Africa, the difficulty of casting her two leads, and the importance of creating a deeply unlikable female character.      

(WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for”Banel & Adama”.)

I read that you wanted this movie to be a story of how Juliet became Lady Macbeth. Could you talk more about how those two influences started you on this journey?

I wrote this script when I was a student at La Fémis; I was studying screenwriting. It was my last year, and I had to write my [final] script. I wanted something new. I was born and raised in Paris by Senegalese parents, and I wanted to write a script with a Black African female character who is fearless and strong and different from all the African women on TV, who are shown as very fragile, oppressed victims. I wanted to create a mix because I really love theater. So yeah, I was like, I’m gonna write a love story because I think it’s really important to write a universal love story from Africa. We don’t have enough of that. I want to tell the story of a woman, the struggle of a woman, and what it is to be a woman: the fear, hope, and joy—but in a tragic way. 

You’ve talked about how this script differs from others you wrote in school. It is a return to Senegal. What did that return activate in you?

A lot. When I wrote the script, I [had] just gone to Senegal on vacation for two months. So I didn’t know much about Senegal, so I imagined a lot of stuff when I wrote the script. It was great. Because I didn’t want to write a strictly African story. Because I’m French and Senegalese and I’m proud to be both, mixing cultures, like the Western culture I was born in, with tragedy and Shakespeare was so interesting. And Senegal is important. I was educated at home; my parents talked to me in Fula, and we ate on the floor. Very traditional. It was inspiring to ask myself if those cultures can be mixed artistically.

You can feel the balance in Banel and Adama’s struggle to balance their longing for individuality with the community’s requirements. The use of color, particularly as it pertains to Banel, is such a striking way of charting her character. Could you talk a bit about that?

I love painting and art. I go to the museum. So, I wanted to create paintings in my movie. I took inspiration from Kerry James Marshall, Amoako Boafo, who is Ghanaian too, and Edvard Munch and Van Gogh. My movie starts as an Impressionist movie and then becomes an Expressionist one. At first, my movie is Impressionist in the way that the colors are vivid, beautiful, and shiny before it gets crazier with the color palette getting more white and more gray. You can see that in the T-shirt Banel wears at the beginning; it’s very yellow because, for me, Banel is the sun. Throughout the movie, her t-shirt becomes a little bit white. By the end, her T-shirt is very white. The color was so important in my movie because the color also describes climate change and what Banel is feeling. Her T-shirt at the beginning is yellow because she’s so happy. She has a lot of joy. And after that, the shirt turns white because she’s soulless and really sad, and the passion with Adama isn’t there anymore.

Regarding Edvard Munch, I thought about the frame with white rotting cow carcasses against the cracked white landscape. How did you achieve that look?

I’m so glad you said that; it’s such a compliment. I love Munch. A lot of people have asked me if those are real cows. Yes, those are real cows. But we didn’t kill them. We didn’t have enough money to create fake cows. The production designer went around the region looking for dead cows on the road.

That explains so much. While watching the film, I wondered how you made the cows look so realistic. 

They were very real. And I always have to explain that we didn’t kill them. They were already dead and we saved a lot of money because of that.

That leads me to the magical realism component, which almost borders on horror in nature—especially with the single-note piano score.

I worked with Bachar Khalifé on the music. I didn’t want to work with an African composer because I didn’t want my music to be too obvious. I didn’t want tam-tam drums; I didn’t want koras; I didn’t want a prototypical African sound. I wanted a universal sound because I wanted my story to be universal at the end. But it was interesting to work with Bashar because he’s from Lebanon. Lebanon is between the West and Africa, so he knows the sound of Africa and the sound of the West. When Bachar read the script for the first time, he told me, I hear a lot of electronic guitar for Banel. It was so interesting for me because I had never heard an electric guitar in an African movie with a little bit of rock piano. We really tried to stick the music to what Banel was feeling at the beginning. The music is not beautiful and peaceful; as Banel grows crazier because of Adama, the music does too.

The music bleeds in so well with the soundtrack of the children whispering Banel and Adama’s names. What was the thinking behind that component of the soundscape?

This is a good question. I don’t even think I know the answer myself. For me, in the script, they were in jail, jailed away from another world. Banel, for me, isn’t human. She’s someone who, unfortunately, fell into the wrong world for her. She has some magic and power and mysticism in her, and I think the voice shows how she comes from another world. And it’s, of course, the guilt she feels for killing her first husband. 

I love that you say she comes from a different world because there is this otherworldliness about Banel, and Khady Mane, the actress who plays her. You’ve previously mentioned that you struggled to cast Banel, to the point that you resorted to scouring the streets to find a person who could play her. You ended up randomly locking eyes with Mane from across the street and knew she was the one. What did you see in her eyes that made you so sure?

She had big eyes, you know? In real life, Khady, who plays Banel, isn’t like her at all. She’s quite different. She’s shy. She’s afraid of everything. Every night, she sleeps with the light on because she’s afraid of everything, and she’s 24. So she’s really different from Banel. But I don’t know. When I saw her, I think I saw a little bit of craziness in her, a kind of craziness that she didn’t even know about. That’s funny because at the end of the shooting, Khady said to me, I didn’t know I had this in me, this power, this craziness, this will to be a woman in this world. I am happy I revealed that in my actress, not in my character, but in my actress.

How did you work to reveal that within her?

I worked with all non-professional actors for this film. Many didn’t read because, in this part of Senegal, they don’t know how to read. It was really difficult. But with Khady, I showed her two movies, “The Story of Adele H Ash” by François Truffaut and “Camille Claudel,” and both stars Isabella Adjani. Both the women characters in those films are women who become crazy because of love and passion. When she saw and watched those two movies, she understood what I wanted from her. That allowed for more discussion. I worked a lot with her, talking about the character’s past and present, how she was already married and she was so young. It was a lot of talking. 

And with Mamadou Diallo, who plays Adama, how did you know those two would work together? Did you do a chemistry read?

Mamadou was different. He went through several rounds of casting the first time, and at the end, I said, I’m sorry, but it’s not you. I don’t want you to cast you. So, he went to Dakar for vacation. I worked from the village. One night, I was in my room doing prep, and I thought I needed to rewatch the tape of Mamadou. I rewatched the tape, and I said, No. I need to see him one more time. We took the car and we drove eight hours with Khady, who was already cast, and I did a read. It was obvious from the first read I knew they would become friends very fast. They are friends, even right now. They are so close; they’ve created a bond.

Could you talk about the climate change element more? It’s such a fascinating connection in a story that doesn’t seem to call for it at first blush.

I wanted to talk about climate change, but not in a straightforward way. I had to find a way to link climate change with the love story between Banel and Adama. It’s a curse that brings climate change to the community. It was really important to me to talk about climate change in Africa because they are living with climate change. But they are not responsible. We are responsible in the West. It was important for me to create a tale of magical realism connecting Banel with climate change. Banel doesn’t respect nature. She kills animals. For me, nature is the third character in my movie. Banel destroys nature because of her anger, because she’s uncomfortable as a woman, and nature takes revenge on the community.

The conflict between the community, Banel, and nature makes her such a complex character. Initially, she seems so dislikable. But it’s almost like a test for the audience. You should say, wait, why is she now so dislikable? How did she become like this? 

It’s a great question that I have. During Q&As, many people ask why she’s so mean and selfish. I’ve said, So for you, a woman seeking freedom and love, is she mean and selfish? I don’t think she’s mean and selfish. She’s not likable, but Lady Macbeth isn’t likable. That’s not a problem. Sula is unlikable. It’s funny because I read an interview with Toni Morrison, who said when “Sula” was released, at the beginning, many people didn’t like the character—Black people or white people—because she was different. We are not used to seeing Black female characters as complex and unlikable. A Black female character has to be shown as oppressed. 

She is such a wretched person by the end.

At least she has humanity. Even with Lady Macbeth, we don’t see that humanity. So, I don’t know what the issue is with my character. I think it’s really important to change the narrative about Africa, about Black people, and about Black women. It’s really important to show another kind of character.

Toward the end of the film, there’s a major sandstorm. Most filmmakers might have faded out with the sandstorm, but you come back with a direct address from Banel. Why end it that way?

I changed the end of the movie two weeks before the start of shooting. I didn’t plan on Banel dying. But two weeks before the start of the shooting, I was like, Banel has to die. She’s a tragic character and she’s lived her life very strongly. She cannot accept that Adama must become chief and marry another wife. I found that very strong. Banel is a driven character. She thinks of herself before the community. She thinks: I’m a woman. I don’t want to live under the community. I don’t want to live under Adama. I’m free, and I think I will be more free when I die.

I wanted her to live my dream. But for the [fourth-wall break] that comes at the end, it wasn’t planned to be like that. We did that during the editing of the movie. It was important not to finish without her, to hear from Banel, even if she said something very sad and very pessimistic, it was really important for me to see her face. I wanted the public to see her face.

What’s next for you? Since this film was such a departure for you, particularly setting it in Senegal, I’m wondering, will your next film return to Senegal or will you look for another location?

I know that I won’t be back in Senegal for now. I think my next project will be set in France or Europe. I really want that challenge because since Cannes, a lot of people have said to me that I’m an African director. But they forget that I’m also French. I want to see what I can do here in France without the landscape and beauty of Africa. 

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