Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

The Senegalese director’s debut movie, Banel & Adama, propelled her to the red carpet. She explains why she wanted to show the world its flawed lead character

Nearly a decade ago, when Ramata-Toulaye Sy sat down to write her graduation script at the end of a screenwriting degree, her goal was simple. “I wanted to tell the most beautiful and greatest African love story,” says the 37-year-old French Senegalese film-maker with a smile. “When I was growing up a lot of African stories were about misery, poverty, war. I wanted to say: we can have African stories about people falling in love.”

She pauses, her grin widening. “Most importantly, I wanted to write the story of how Juliet became Lady Macbeth.” It’s a description that nails the film she’s now directed, based on that script, Banel & Adama. A subversive feminist romance set in Senegal, it was the only film by a first-time director in the main competition at Cannes last year (pitting her against veterans Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes and Ken Loach in the running for the festival’s top prize).

In photos from the red carpet – radiant in Chanel – Sy looked like a woman who knows that she belongs, who feels exactly where she deserves to be. But underneath, it was another story. “That was just my face! I wasn’t happy. I was so stressed. I didn’t know what to expect when they told me we were in competition. It hit me when I was on the red carpet: OK, I’m in Cannes. It was really difficult after that.”

A film still from Banel & Adama showing two smiling people, their heads above the surface of the turquoise sea.

Still from Banel & Adama. Photograph: La Chauve-Souris
Banel & Adama is a magical realist tale set in rural Senegal where 18-year-old Banel (Khady Mane) is married to Adama (Mamadou Diallo). They are head over heels, practically glued to each other – which attracts disapproving looks in their village. Banel has a fierce independent streak; she feels suffocated by village life, the constant digs that she’s not pregnant yet, not feminine enough. There are flashes of something dangerous in the cracks of her personality, too. In a telltale scene, she kills a songbird with a catapult.

Banel is a thrillingly flawed and complicated character. I tell Sy that she took a risk in writing a woman capable of being so unlikable. She nods. “I know that my character is really mean sometimes. But I did that on purpose, because we see a lot of unlikable white female characters: Medea, Phaedra, and now Gone Girl, or Killing Eve. But never a black female.

“A black female character has to be fragile, oppressed and a victim, especially in Africa. So it was a political gesture, to create an unlikable character. To tell the world that African women can also be deep and complex.”

People have told her that Banel is mad, selfish, mean. But for Sy, the picture is more complicated. “She’s like that because of society and how they oppress her, her life, her femininity.” Sy insists she’s not excusing the worst of Banel’s behaviour. “But the moral of my movie is: be the woman you want to be. If you don’t want kids, it’s not a problem. If you don’t like wearing a skirt, it’s not a problem.”

It was never the plan for her to direct the film. Growing up in Paris, she wanted to be a novelist, then a screenwriter.

Portrait of Ramata-Toulaye Sy sitting at a table with her head leaning on one palm.
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Ramata-Toulaye Sy. Photograph: Philippe Quaisse – Pasco&co
As a kid she rarely went to the cinema. “Just a couple of times a year with school.” But at home, on the sofa with her brother and sister, she watched all the blockbusters – Terminator, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future. Even today, she’s partial to a popcorn movie: “I still like the big Marvels, Fast and Furious, anything like that.”

Sy’s parents are both Senegalese. Her father, a factory worker, encouraged her to follow her instincts. “He said: ‘You can do whatever you want. I don’t care what. You just have to be the best.’ It was a lot of pressure.”

She is speaking over Zoom from her apartment in Paris. After graduating from the city’s prestigious La Fémis film school in 2015 and feeling “lost”, she moved to Dakar and lived there for a few years. “I had to re-find myself, to learn a little bit about my culture.”

She started her career co-writing two films, Sibel (2018) and Our Lady of the Nile (2019), and picking up work as script doctor. When the producer who bought her script for Banel & Adama tried and failed to find a director, he suggested she take it on.

Making the film was no easy feat. It’s set in the region of Fouta, where her parents grew up, eight hours by car from Dakar. Casting non-professionals as actors took five months. She spotted student Khady Mane, who plays Banel, in the street just a month before filming. “Our eyes met and she immediately caught my attention.” The crew were 85% Senegalese.

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It was a gruelling shoot, working in 50C heat in a village with no electricity. Sy lost 10kg while filming, grabbing just a few hours’ sleep a night. But directing felt right: “It’s not easy, because it’s never easy, but it felt natural.”

In interviews, Sy has said that there is a lot of herself in Banel, that she was rebellious growing up. “I grew up in a very traditional African way: you have to be married early, you have to have children, you have to have a house.” She shrugs. “I’m 37 and I don’t have any of that. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I’m not settled. Even when I was young, I didn’t want to be normal. I just wanted to be me.”

Was she a typical teenager, staying out late, partying? The idea has her laughing. “No! No, no. I was a studious girl. I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends. It’s maybe more deep than that. I wanted to be rebellious in my life, you know?” she pauses, gesturing, her arms reaching at the possibilities. “I wanted to be like Maya Angelou. I wanted to be like Toni Morrison. I wanted to be that kind of woman.”

By Joy

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