At the heart of this unconventional love story, we follow a Senegalese couple determined to nurture their relationship while challenging the deeply entrenched traditional roles of their tribe. Banel, a young female rights activist, yearns for a life beyond the confines of the tribe, envisioning a future with Adama where they can raise a family one day and enjoy their freedom. However, Banel’s quest for individuality often casts her as an outsider with seemingly unattainable aspirations within the community. Adama, on the other hand, bears the weight of his family’s legacy, destined to assume leadership of the tribe and shoulder its ancestral responsibilities. Their journey takes an unexpected turn when a series of enigmatic and prophetic events unfold, forever altering the tribe’s destiny and the bond between Adama and Banel. Taji Mag was able to chat with the creative mind behind this romantic drama, Ramata-Toulaye Sy during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Dapper Dr. Feel (DDF): It is a pleasure to meet you, Ramata. Can you introduce yourself to our audience and let us know a little bit about yourself?
Ramata-Toulaye Sy (RTS): Of course, I’m Ramata -Toulaye Sy, and I’m 37. I was born in France, Paris, but my parents are initially from Senegal, in West Africa. I am a director and screenwriter of the 2023 TIFF-selected film Banel & Adama. It’s my first feature, and it was an official selection at Cannes this year.
DDF: There are some beautiful scenes of the Senegal environment sans dialogue. What was the process for selecting those sites?
RTS: So with my Director of Photography (DOP), Virada, we wanted it to resemble paintings because I love painting. I go to a lot of museums around the world, and painting is a passion of mine, second to literature. I wanted my movie to be a piece of art and not just cinematographic, with a lot of literature, a lot of poetry, and a lot of painting. So I had a lot of inspiration from artists like Amoura Kobouafo, Kerry James Marshall, Van Gogh, and Edvard Munch.
My inspirations in literature are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Jean Racine for the tragedy and African tales my mom told me when I was young.
DDF: There are a lot of themes in this film. Can you elaborate on what themes you wanted to highlight and why?
RTS: So first of all I wanted this film to be a love story. I wanted to write the biggest, the boldest, and the saddest African love story because I think, in Africa, we need more universal stories and not just stories about misery, war, and oppression. I really wanted to do a universal story. I think I tend to write about women because there’s always this question about how to be a woman in this world. What it means to be a Black woman is really important to me, how is our life, what is our struggle, the beauty, the complexity, and deepness of being a woman.
DDF: The character, Banel, is just so resistant to the culture and the gender roles of the tribe. What do you think is the cause of this?
RTS: I think it’s from me. Lol! I’m like Banel, not quite really the exact same, but the inspiration is me because I think I’m resistant against the world. I’m resisting against, you know, everything. It’s my personality and I think Banel just wants to live life as a woman. She doesn’t have a big goal in mind at the moment. She just wants to live by her own terms, free from her traditions, culture, and what the people in her life, like her family, want from her… like having a baby, which she doesn’t want.
She just wants to love and live her life passionately with Adama. She’s really angry, and I really wanted to tell the story where a woman could be angry because we are allowed to be angry. We can have angered emotions towards people, beliefs, and things in this world, because it’s so hard. It’s so hard to be a woman in this world, and it’s so hard to be a Black woman in this world.
DDF: Why is Banel’s weapon/tool of choice a slingshot?
RTS: A lot of people are asking me this question. I think this is usually played with and used by little boys. Characteristically, it’s usually used by boys, but since the beginning of the film, we see she’s not a typical woman. She’s a little bit childish, she’s just like a warrior. I wanted her to be a warrior, but I didn’t want her to use a gun or knife. I wanted an object that signifies Africa, you know?
DDF: What do you want your viewers to remember the most about your film after watching it?
RTS: I think I want the spectator to remember Banel. Not the beautiful painting or the beautiful shot. For me, the character of Banel is essential in this world. Actually, all the struggles women have in Africa, in Afghanistan, in Syria, women everywhere, all of their struggles [are essential].
I don’t want people to love Banel, I don’t care if they do, and a lot of people don’t! I just want people to understand why she is angry and why she is the way she is.
DDF: You have a passion for giving back and making a positive impact on your community. How do you think your career in filmmaking can align with your goals of creating social change and contributing to some of the causes that you care about?
RTS: I think I really like to help people from my community. It’s a big dream of mine to help and give back. I grew up in France, in a suburb where my parents settled as immigrants. So it was really hard for me just to enter this cinematic world of France, because this world is really small and at times feels closed off. But I really want to help people like me from this suburb, from immigrant parents, and those less fortunate, help to elevate this world and allow for opportunities for people. I want people to dream big because we can help elevate and grow, even though [we] have to do twice the work.
DDF: I want to ask one question about Adama. There is a certain shift in the film where events occur that affect the tribe negatively. Why do you think these events changed his mind?
RTS: With the character of Adama, I wanted him to be very innocent and very fragile. All those characteristics are normally used for women, but I put them in Adama. In this story, the victim is not Banel, it is not the woman. The character who takes on more of the victim role is the man. I wanted to show [through] the Adama character, that it’s not easy for men to have duties placed upon them; this includes duties influenced by culture and beliefs. This way, I showed that it’s not easy for men or women, but it’s really not easy for men to choose duty.
I don’t want to spoil it, but I think Adama had to make the choice he did at the end because he didn’t have another solution. He loves his community and he wants to do something for his people, for his community; unlike Banel, who’s a selfish character, but I really love that.
DDF: What are some of the films that impacted you growing up?
RTS: I didn’t have the cinema culture growing up because my parents came from a very small village in Senegal. So, I didn’t go to a lot of cinemas when I was young. I watched a lot of films on TV later in life. It was the big American blockbusters like The Terminator, Indiana Jones, Fast and the Furious, and other movies like that.
DDF: Have your parents seen this film and what was their response to it?
RTS: Yeah, and it’s the first time that my parents went to the cinema.
DDF: Oh, wow. That must’ve been a big deal.
RTS: Yeah it really was a big deal because my dad arrived in France during the 60s and my mom arrived during the 80s. They never went to a movie theater. It was their first time and that’s weird because my dad didn’t tell me much other than that I did a good job and my mom said it was very different because she’s still very traditional. So she came home and she said to me, “That Banel, she’s so mean. She’s not a good girl”.
DDF: Oh my goodness! That must’ve stirred up some feelings in you.
RTS: Yeah, but my parents are really proud of me, you know? They are really proud that I chose to make my first movie in Senegal… in Perle… in the village; because, you know, they are from Perle.
Conclusion/Thoughts on the Film
Banel & Adama immerses viewers in the beautiful landscapes of Senegal, evoking the essence of the environment visually. The cast, while not seasoned actors by profession, delivered performances imbued with authenticity, breathing life into their characters. Their unpolished portrayals added a rawness that professional actors might have struggled to capture.
I particularly felt the anger and resistance Banel had for the life forced upon her, but also didn’t like how she spoke and treated people at times. Adama, I felt more sympathy for because he truly wanted to live his life on his own terms and not the one chosen by his family, but cared about his community enough to make some difficult decisions.
Despite its small village setting, the film’s themes resonate universally and, I am sure, have touched audiences worldwide.
We all grapple with the quest for a life and identity that sometimes diverges from our cultural norms, familial expectations, or personal beliefs.
While this film may not be an action blockbuster, it will undoubtedly find a place amongst art enthusiasts and cinephiles. The narrative artistry, combined with its portrayal of a Senegalese village, provides a compelling experience for viewers. It’s no surprise that the film has earned a spot in the Toronto Film Festival and continues to grace other prestigious film festivals globally.