Among the familiar, old white men who seemingly dominate this year’s Cannes Competition — Wim Wenders, Aki Kaurismaki, Ken Loach, Marco Bellocchio, Nanni Moretti — Ramata-Toulaye Sy stands out. The French-Senegalese filmmaker is the only first-timer in the competition lineup and her feature debut, Banel & Adama, the only African-set film in the running for the 2023 Palme d’Or. (The last was Mati Diop’s Atlantique, another first-time feature from a female French-Senegalese director, which won the Cannes jury prize in 2019.)
But if she’s nervous about stepping onto the biggest stage in international cinema, Sy isn’t showing it. “People keep telling me [being in the Cannes competition] is stressful and terrifying,” she says, laughing. “Maybe I should be more stressed out?”
Sy has been preparing for this moment for a while. She wrote the script to Banel & Adama, the story of a star-crossed couple in rural Senegal whose passion for one another threatens to disrupt their whole community, years ago. But she had to pay her dues in the industry — co-writing the scripts for Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s Sibel (2018) and Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile (2019), helming the award-winning short Astel (2021) — before backers would give her the chance to direct a feature.
The result, which Tandem will release in France, and Best Friend Forever is selling internationally, draws on both European and African storytelling traditions, the twin roots of Sy’s own identity. “I had in mind to do a great love story, the equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, but out of Africa in a way so universal that everyone, everywhere in the world, could relate to it.”
The filmmaker told THR about shooting her movie, her thoughts on Cannes and the rise of African cinema.
Was it a surprise to be picked for Cannes competition with your first film?
It was a complete surprise because we’d known for a month that we were selected for Cannes, but it was for Un Certain Regard, not the main competition. It was only the night of the announcement, at midnight, that I got the call that Banel & Adama would be in competition. No one knew! Not the producers, not the distributors. I was the one who called them. And they didn’t believe me! They had to call Cannes themselves to make sure I wasn’t making the whole thing up.
What’s funny is the news didn’t stress me at all. But now people keep telling me [being in the Cannes competition] is stressful and terrifying. Maybe I should be more stressed out? I’ve only been a director for about two years now: I directed my first short film [Astel] and now my first feature, so I’m not very familiar with this world and the expectations put on a director at a festival like this. I’m trying to keep a distance to the whole thing but as it gets closer the pressure has been getting higher and higher.
Was it a big jump for you, going from directing a short to doing your first feature?
Interestingly enough, I didn’t go through that process of transition. It was really done back-to-back. I was supposed to start with the feature. I’d already written the script to Banel & Adama. But the CNC, the French Film Center, which was financing the film, they wanted to see some imagery first, to give a visual impression of where I was going before they backed me. So we did the short. But immediately after, I started already on the feature, which is set in the same location in northern Senegal where my parents’ family comes from. The short traveled a lot, it went to Toronto and other festivals, but I didn’t go with it. I was already focused on shooting the feature.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
Well, I trained at a famous French film school [the prestigious La Femis in Paris] in the screenwriting section. It’s a four-year curriculum, and every year you have to write a feature film script. Banel & Adama was my graduation script. My first three scripts were set in the French suburbs, which is where I was born and grew up, but I felt I was pigeonholing myself, doing these very realistic suburban films. For my final year, I wanted to try something else. Not just geographically, setting the film in Senegal, but also stylistically. So this is a love story, but it’s not a naturalistic love story, it’s more like a fairy tale, like magic realism. It has a completely different tone than what I’d written before.
The idea for me was to tell this love story about this couple who lives in this region in the north of Senegal, where their love poses a real challenge to the community because there’s no room for passion, no room for individual choice, for love. In a way, their love triggers chaos and a general crisis, even an environmental crisis, because it is blamed when the rains that are needed don’t come.
I was inspired in this non-naturalistic approach by thinking of great tragic figures of Greek or French literature. I wondered why, in Africa, we can’t also have these great, tragic female figures. I wanted to have a heroine that would be at the level of Medea, Antigona, or Phaedra but with an African background.
Do you know that area of Senegal well?
Yes, I’m really familiar with the area, the Fouta region, because that’s where my parents come. My parents actually come more from the northeast, and we shot this, for practical reasons, in the northwest. But it’s the area I’m most familiar with in Senegal because I went there for every school holiday. I know the place, the people, their habits, and their language [Banel & Adama is entirely shot in the local, Pulaar language]. I have a really strong relationship with the culture and the community there.
What I’ve really tried, and hope I’ve managed, to do is to create something, that reflects my own being, my own identity, my own way of being in the world. Because I’m a mixture. I really have a dual identity. I was raised in France. I did all my education here. I’ve been really nurtured by this French culture. I have a real passion for French and European literature. But at the same time, after I finished film school, I lived in Senegal for four years. I have a very strong connection to Senegalese and African culture. So this film is inspired by Greek tragic figures, but also by African folk tales. I’m a huge fans of American authors like Toni Morrison and her type of writing, this magical realistic style, is very influential on me. What I tried to do in this film is to crystallize all these different things that I feel express my own way of being in the world.
There seems to be a wave of films coming out now from French directors with African diaspora backgrounds: Mati Diop with Atlantique, Ladj Ly with Les Misérables, Alice Diop with Saint Omer…
I’ve been asked this question before, what explains the emergence of films made by people with an African background who have been more or less educated in France? I think, in part, it’s that we are giving voice to new characters, to people audiences, at least in the Western world, are not used to seeing on screen. I think what matters is that we actually show these people, we give voice to these people, these people who were despised and made invisible. Now we are telling the stories that we want to tell and showing the people we want to show. It doesn’t matter if they take place, like my film, in Senegal, or if they take place in France, what’s important is that we are all finding our own voices as writers and artists. I think my impulse when I started writing was to get away from all the stereotypes and categories I could feel myself being locked into.
This is why I wanted to get away from the socially-realistic “suburban” movies and why, when I shot in Africa, to tell a different kind of story. [For years] the only way of making a film on Africa, the only thing people wanted you to show about Africa, was misery and rapes and corruption, all in this very realistic, naturalistic way. Of course, misery and all this trouble exist in Africa, but I wanted to take a different approach, non-naturalistic… Why shouldn’t we be diverse in the way we depict African stories? Mati Diop did that with the fantastic elements in Atlantique, and for me, the way I could do this story was through the poetic elements, by trying to take this lyrical idea from magical realist literature and transpose it into cinema, to give a different take on this African story.
Your actors, including leads Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo, are non-professionals. How did you cast them?
It was clear, because I wanted to set the film in this region, Fouta, that I’d be working with non-professionals. Because there aren’t that many professional actors from there. Most people making a living from acting in Senegal are from the majority ethnic community [the Wolof] but the Fouta region is very specific and the language is very specific. I couldn’t cheat and take someone from another ethnic and other community and pretend they were locals, or have them speak with a strange accent.
And I found it more comfortable to work with non-actors. First, as actors, they don’t lie, they can’t cheat. You cast them because there is something of your characters in them, it’s a direct connection, not something they are pretending.
But a month before the shoot, I was in panic, because we still hadn’t found our lead actress, our Banel. We knew we couldn’t postpone the shoot. The rainy season was coming and we knew exactly how much time we had. Actually, the rains came early, which was another problem, but a month ahead, we were getting desperate. I told my producer we couldn’t wait any longer, we just started walking around the city, looking at people. We were walking past a school, and there were a few girls outside talking. One girl looks up at me and her eyes: That was exactly the gaze of my character, of Banel. These things can be tricky, so I sent our acting coach to talk to her. At first, she wasn’t interested. But she came the next day to the audition. She was wearing a wig, as many African, many Black, women do. I asked her to take it off, and when she did, seeing her, shaved head without the wig, without her earrings, I knew she was it.
How did the shoot go?
Oh God, I could write a book about everything that went wrong! The rainy season arrived early, washing everything away. We had sandstorms all the way through the shoot. There’s one in the film, but we didn’t have to create it, we were eating sand all day, every day. It was awful. It was [120 F] every day, boiling hot. Everybody got sick. The whole crew. The main actress got seriously ill twice. It was disaster after disaster for four straight months. When I got back, I’d lost [22 lbs]. But we made it. And now we’re going to Cannes!
This interview was conducted in French via a translator and has been edited for length and clarity.
Source: The Nollywood Reporter