It’s rare, but not unheard of, for a filmmaker to land their debut feature in competition at Cannes. Such instances include Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. But given Cannes’ strong preference for established artists, beginning one’s career in competition can be a mixed blessing. It sets expectations higher than if one’s film had screened in Un Certain Regard, a section more commonly associated with first-timers. And of course, it positions your film among those of well-known international directors, films more likely to capture the attention of audiences and the press. Banel & Adama, the first feature from Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy, was reasonably well-received when it premiered in 2023, but it was too small, and in some ways too strange, of a picture to compete with the likes of May December, The Zone of Interest, Anatomy of a Fall, Asteroid City, and a dozen other high-profile titles. Set for general release later this year, Banel & Adama will undoubtedly fare better, since it’s a film that demands both concentration and adjustment. Neither strictly realistic nor overtly supernatural in its narrative approach, Sy’s film stages a conflict between two incompatible systems of belief. But it’s unusual in that neither worldview is privileged or validated.
On its face, Banel & Adama seems to be a love story set in a village in northern Senegal. Sy mostly depicts events from the point of view of Banel (Khady Mane), a young woman exhibiting an incipient feminist consciousness that is at odds with tribal customs. She rejects the gendered division of labor, wanting to herd cattle rather than sow the fields or wash clothes. She is repulsed by the thought of childbirth, despite being told it is her job as a Muslim woman to provide a male heir. But above all, she courts suspicion by being deeply in love with her husband Adama (Mamadou Diallo), where most women of the tribe accept their arranged marriages and sexual duties as basic responsibilities, and little else.
Before the film’s action begins, we learn that Banel was previously married to Adama’s brother, as per custom. But she was always in love with Adama, and so when her first husband died, she was fortunate enough to be betrothed to Adama, also by custom. As we slowly come to realize, good fortune may have had little to do with Banel and Adama’s eventual marriage. At first, Sy seems to want us to admire Banel for her independence, since her point of view aligns more closely with a Western perspective on female agency. The demands of the tribe are largely based on superstition and an overriding ideology of collectivism, with everyone born to play a specific role. In fact, Adama is next in line to become the village chief, but he has no interest in doing so and, with Banel’s blessing, refuses to take the position. Events soon spiral out of control, with an unprecedented drought killing off most of the tribe. The elders believe that Allah is punishing them because Adama refused his rightful place as chief, and soon he begins to regret his decision, his responsibility to the community weighing heavily upon him. But Banel is relentless, insisting that the entire tribe can die so long as she and Adama are together. Every time Adama acts on behalf of the tribe, she frames it as a direct betrayal.
At the start of Banel & Adama, Sy’s style of blocking, framing, and mise-en-scène is relatively familiar from the history of African cinema. One sees clear echoes of Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène, as well as color patterns and spatial organizations we might associate with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and Abderrahmane Sissako. Gradually, this organic picture of community breaks down, and the various characters are seen grappling with the implications. The unexpected drought, for example, is most likely attributable to climate change, but this interpretive framework is unavailable to the members of the tribe. Instead, it is seen as retribution, either from Allah for abandoning tradition or, in Banel’s eyes, due to the insufficiency of Adama’s love.
And so, on close inspection, Banel & Adama is not a showdown between religiosity and feminism, but between selfishness and a sense of duty, however misplaced. Banel’s passion for Adama begins to look a lot like malignant narcissism, while the elders can only confront new crises with old, inadequate logics. Sy depicts absolute social collapse as the result of an inability to think outside the binarism of conservative beliefs and radical individualism. In both cases, insularity leads to utter destruction.
Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 1.