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CANNES 2023 Competition

Ramata-Toulaye Sy • Director of Banel & Adama

"Everything had to follow Banel's emotional journey"


- CANNES 2023: The young filmmaker unveils the intentions of her first feature film, shot in Senegal and propelled directly into the festival's official competition

Ramata-Toulaye Sy  • Director of Banel & Adama

Banel & Adama [+see also:
film review
interview: Ramata-Toulaye Sy
film profile
, the first feature film by French-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy, was entered directly into the competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaker demonstrates an undeniable atmospheric power beneath the symbolic surface of a story focused on the essential.

Cineuropa: Why did you choose Africa to shoot your first feature film and opt for the angle of tale, poetry and magic realism?
Ramata-Toulaye Sy : Africa, it is because I wanted to change the register. This screenplay is from my last year at La Fémis. During my first three years, I had written scripts set in France, in the Parisian suburbs, but I really felt the call of Africa to reconnect with my origins. Because my parents are from Senegal and I used to go on holiday there when I was younger. As for the style of the film, I'm passionate about literature, especially tales, magic realism, Toni Morrison, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Faulkner, and tragedies. So I decided, even if it was a lot, to put these three genres in the same film while trying to give a certain coherence.

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This tragic love story, it is Banel & Adama, not Adama and Banel.
It's Banel and Adama, and then as the film progresses, it's Banel because Adama disappears. The objective at the beginning was to write the greatest African love story, but it's true that what interests me most is the story of Banel, the story of this woman, her struggle, her fight to exist in this world as a woman, as a Black woman, as an African.

Banel is a rather ambivalent character. There is the side of struggle against traditions, but we also perceive a part of madness in her.
She is a woman who is already emancipated at the beginning, she just wants to live her love and passion as she wants. But the theme of the madness in women because of the passion of love is something I wanted to deal with. I love Medea and she killed her children because of Jason's betrayal, I also love Macbeth or Phaedra, and that passion in love leads to madness like in the films The Story of Adele H. and Camille Claudel. These hyper-complex women, hyper-lovers, their conditions lead them to madness and that is why I wanted to treat this story in this way.

The film is characterised by a very strong intensity, on the faces, the atmosphere, etc. Why this rather radical approach?
The most important thing was to find a common thread for the direction and the photography, and that at each stage, for the costumes, the editing, the music, everything had to follow Banel's emotional journey. For example, the costumes fade little by little. The more Banel's heart dries up because of the conditions and her love for Adama disappears because of the community, the more the world dries up around her. I treated this in a rather metaphorical way. At the beginning she is very happy so these are "beautiful" shots, with a lot of light, very pastel colours, and as time goes by it becomes more and more white. There is discolouration and above all desaturation, which was a big challenge because we are not used to seeing desaturated films and in general when they are desaturated, it means that it is badly shot. But it was also an obligation because we had to find a way to deal with the drought, even though there was none where we were shooting. So the further we go, the whiter the image becomes until it becomes bright before turning orange for the final storm. All this required a lot of work on the colours, with the filters with the chief operator Amine Berrada and in colour grading. And it was the same for the music, with the Lebanese Bachar Khalifé and for the mixing too, with the immense Jean-Pierre Laforce: it was necessary to follow Banel's emotional journey. Because the sound also had to disappear. In the first part, everything is happy, the birds are singing, you can hear the village, but at the end, you can't hear anything, there are no more animals, you can't hear the water or the trees. We had to create death all around the village and this had to be done through sound.

You also tried your hand at special effects.
I was lucky enough to work with Mac Guff: the animals, the bird cloud, the sandstorm. I've only made one short film and that was without special effects, so it was completely new to me. I didn't know it was so hard and expensive. At the 20th version of storm, I was told to stop (laughs) and choose one. But it was crucial, because even though there is storytelling and magical realism in the film, the special effects couldn't be cheap: it had to be real enough. This sandstorm was a very big job because there are VFX in the background but for everything you see in the foreground, the SFX were made of huge and smaller fans: everybody got involved with carrying them, including the producers.

And the idea of the sandy houses that Banel and Adama clear away so that they can come and live there, away from the village?
For me it is an open-air coffin. That's why you sometimes hear little voices, as if Banel was cursed and was attracted to these houses. These characters needed an obstacle and I didn't want them to want to go to the capital or to France, whether it was political or social. I wanted them to be happy where they are, but to want their own home. The obstacle may seem simple for a European, but in Senegal, leaving the family home is impossible, everyone lives in a community.

First feature film and a selection in competition at Cannes.
It's magical and unexpected, but there's a lot of pride.

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(Translated from French by Margaux Comte)

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