Most filmmakers in the Cannes Film Festival’s top-rung competition are well-known directors who have been around for decades. One dramatic exception this year is Ramata-Toulaye Sy, a French-Senegalese filmmaker whose first film, “Banel & Adama,” landed among the 21 films competing for the Palme d’Or.
“It’s only now that I realize that being in competition means being in a competition,” Sy said, laughing, 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.”
Sy, 36, is the sole first-timer in Cannes’ main lineup this year. She is also only the second Black female director to ever compete for the Palme, following Mati Diop, also a French-Senegalese filmmaker, whose “Atlantics” debuted in 2019. For the Paris-raised Sy, it’s not a distinction of significance.
“I’m a filmmaker and I really wish we stopped being counted as women, as Black or Arab or Asian,” she said.
In “Banel & Adama,” also the only Africa-set film competing for the Palme this year, Sy crafts a radiant and languorous fable tinged with myth and tragedy.
Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) are a deeply in love married couple living in a small village in northern Senegal. In their intimate romantic idyll, they wish to pull away from the local traditions. Adama is set to become village chief but is uninterested in doing so. Banel dreams of living outside the village, in a home buried under a mountain of sand.
While Banel and Adama slowly work to sweep away the sand, their yearning to live on their own causes angst in the village, especially when a drought arrives that some take as a curse for their independence. Though often opaque, the film stays largely with the psychology of Banel, whose single-mindedness grows increasingly dark.
“I was quite reluctant at the start to acknowledge that Banel is me,” Sy said. “Now I have to confess that it’s definitely me. I see myself, my questions, my struggle in her journey. How to become an individual inside a community is really my own question.”
Sy began writing “Banel & Adama” in 2014 as a student at La Fémis, the French film school. Sy, the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, says she was first drawn to literature. Novels like Toni Morrison’s “Sula” and Elena Frenate’s “My Brilliant Friend” inspired “Banel & Adama.”
“The love story was a pretext for to deal with myth,” she says. “I wanted to have this kind of mythological female character that you find in Greek tragedy.”
Sy co-wrote Atiq Rahimi’s “Our Lady of the Nile” and Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s “Sibel” — both of which played at international festivals. Her first short film, “Astel,” was well-received.
But little prepared her for the stresses of shooting in rural Senegal. Along with heat, sandstorms and bouts of illness among the crew, Sy struggled to find her Banel. In the end, she found Mane while walking around.
“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,” Sy said. “It was the way that she looked at me. Her gaze had something a bit wise and a bit crazy.”