“Banel & Adama” is a visually stunning and emotionally engaging film that marks an auspicious debut for French-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy. The film is a tragic love story set in the remote region of Fouta in northern Senegal, where the young titular couple Banel and Adama, played beautifully by Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo, defy their society’s expectations and pursue their passion in a hostile environment.
Banel and Adama are young adults in their late teens who live in a remote village in northern Senegal. Adama is quiet and introverted, while Banel is passionate and rebellious. Adama and Banel fall in love and decide to live separately from their families so that they can live together. When Adama refuses to fulfill his birthright to serve as the village’s future leader, chaos ensues in the community.
The film explores the dichotomy between tradition and individuality. The setting, a remote village, serves as a microcosm of this larger societal conflict, providing a backdrop against which the personal struggles of the protagonists, Banel and Adama — with their stark contrasts in personality, and a love for each other that bridges this gap — are played out.
Additionally, the film’s setting is a significant character in itself, providing a backdrop that is both beautiful and harsh, reflecting the struggles of the protagonists. The climate of Senegal is typically tropical with a rainy season and a dry season — a detail crucial in better understanding the film’s narrative, as the drought that hits the village is a significant plot point. The drought not only affects the physical environment but also serves as a metaphor for the societal and personal dry spells that the characters endure.
Sy crafts a narrative that is a rich tapestry of cultural, thematic, and stylistic elements. The film draws on the traditions of magical realism, a genre that blends realistic narrative with surreal elements of fantasy or dreams. The genre has been widely used by African filmmakers to express their cultural identity and challenge colonial representations of the continent. This is evident in the couple’s dream of leaving their family home to live in abandoned houses on the outskirts of the village, a dream that is met with opposition from their community. Nature is effectively disrupted, and the film’s visual style changes, moving from serene long shots that emphasize the languor of the bodies and the harmony of the environment to sharp, abrupt frames that reflect the growing chaos, as the story shifts from one of love to a tale of survival and struggle against norms and personal demons, with supernatural elements that add a layer of mystery and intrigue.
Sy’s storytelling is influenced by diverse influences, including the works of African-American filmmakers like Barry Jenkins (a filmmaker she lists as an immediate influence) to the tragic heroines of classical literature and mythology including Medea (also an expressed direct inspiration on the film). “Banel & Adama’s” narrative structure, which fuses elements of African folklore and Greek tragedy, creates a powerful sense of tension and drama, inspired by the oral tradition of epic poetry that has been at the heart of Sahelian culture for centuries, as seen in the parallels of Banel to figures such as Medea and Lady Macbeth, who, like Banel, are women caught between their desires and the expectations of their society.
Sy’s film also engages with themes that resonate with the works of other African filmmakers. For instance, the works of pioneers like Ousmane Sembène who used film as a tool for social critique and political activism.
Sy’s film also echoes Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” (2019) as a similarly powerful Senegal-set tragedy that delves into the complexities of love, societal expectations, and the clash between tradition and change; although each film offers a distinct narrative and perspective within the context of African cinema.
Moreover, “Banel & Adama’s” focus on a woman’s struggle for self-fulfillment in a traditional society – Banel is fierce and pugnacious — is a theme that has been investigated by contemporary African filmmakers like Wanuri Kahiu and her film “Rafiki”.
Kahiu, Sy, and Diop are part of a new generation of global African filmmakers who are challenging gender stereotypes and celebrating sexual diversity in storytelling across the continent.
“Banel & Adama’s” setting in northern Senegal, the region where Sy’s parents were born, adds another layer of complexity to the narrative. It is a setting that is both specific in its cultural and geographical details and universal in its exploration of human experiences. This duality is a reflection of Sy’s own dual nationality (French and Senegalese) and her ability to navigate between different cultural identities.
The film’s pacing — especially in the first half — and seemingly unresolved finale may feel like some plot threads are left unresolved. However, one interpretation could be that it’s a reflection of the characters’ situation – their struggle is ongoing, with no clear resolution in sight.
Sy’s feature film debut is part of a wave of 21st-century African films that are challenging and expanding the narrative of African cinema. It is a film that is firmly rooted in the African cinematic tradition, yet it also pushes the boundaries of this tradition in new and exciting ways. It is a film that showcases the writer/director’s talent and her ability to weave together diverse influences into a narrative that is uniquely her own.
“Banel & Adama” is a densely layered film that rewards careful and thoughtful viewing. It is a film that is rich in symbolism, metaphor, and intricate plot and character development that invites multiple interpretations and repeated screenings. Given the film’s universal themes of love, societal pressure, and individual struggle, it’s likely to captivate audiences around the world. However, it might particularly appeal to viewers who are interested in films that explore cultural identity, gender roles, and community norms from a fresh perspective.
“Banel & Adama” is one of two African films screening in the main competition section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
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