Cannes 2023 review: Banel e Adama (Ramata-Toulaye Sy)

“As a debut, Banel e Adama is definitely not a misfire, but Sy’s sophomore effort will definitely need more story for her to keep her Cannes run going.”

The Sub-Saharan African representation in the Cannes Competition (or even the Official Selection) over the years has been very limited, so it is refreshing to see a young female director with her first film, and the only debut in Competition this year, make that landmark walk up the famous steps of the Palais. Ramata-Toulaye Sy, the 36-year-old Senegalese director premiering her film Banel e Adama, was visibly moved at the early gala premiere, and rightfully so, for this is an achievement not given to many. Whether her film lives up to those lofty expectations remains to be seen though, as Sy clearly has a keen eye but not enough story to work with in this uneven debut that tackles big themes like feminism in rural African communities or the effects of climate change as it is felt in Sub-Saharan Africa, but whose relationship drama at its core feels too small to justify its 90-minute runtime.

In a remote village in northern Senegal, Banel (Khady Mane) is deeply in love with her husband Adama (Mamadou Diallo), even if she was initially promised to his father until an untimely death prevented that. But despite her happiness with Adama, Banel is unhappy with her village life and the traditional values that rule it. Together with Adama she works hard at digging out an abandoned house from a sand dune outside of town so she won’t have to live with her mother-in-law again. Adama breaks with tradition when he refuses the position of village chief, a position his father was destined for. But his mother wields her influence and is helped by an onsetting drought that over time wipes out the village’s cattle. Suddenly Banel’s relationship with Adama and that dream house comes into doubt…

Sy definitely tries to give Banel e Adama a lot of thematic heft, and even if the title focuses on the couple, it’s Banel’s film as it is her story. Such a female-driven story in this setting, told by a female director who knows the context of her story, is a breath of fresh air, and it isn’t for intent that Banel e Adama fails to convince. Nor is it for Sy’s visuals, which are strong throughout both in the use of light and colour, and in the at times gorgeous framing. Banel e Adama is a sumptuous film visually, which is why it is a shame that the story of the titular couple is such a small one to the point of feeling inconsequential. Sy tries to work poignancy into it through the conflict with the traditional elders, first and foremost Binta Racine Sy as the mother-in-law, or the devastating effects of climate change that wipe out the village’s means of living. The relationship between Banel and Adama in contrast is underwhelming, and when Banel begs her husband for the third time to go dig out their future home it is clear that this story would have been better kept for a mid-length film. A shame, because the underlying themes are important and add a progressive note to a tale about what at its heart is a patriarchal society, but it never goes beyond introducing these elements. As a debut, Banel e Adama is definitely not a misfire, but Sy’s sophomore effort will definitely need more story for her to keep her Cannes run going.

(c) Image copyright: La Chauve-Souris / Take Shelter