Debutante director Ramata-Toulaye Sy will join one of world cinema’s most select clubs when she climbs the stairs of the Grand Theatre Lumière on May 20 for the premiere of “Banel & Adama,” which unspools in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It marks just the second time in the French fest’s 76-year history that a Black woman will compete for the Palme d’Or, a glass ceiling that was shattered only four years ago by Sy’s French Senegalese compatriot, Mati Diop (“Atlantics”).
While acknowledging the honor, it is a club, Sy admits, about which she has some ambivalence. “I really hope that soon all this will be taken for granted — that we won’t be counting the Black directors, that we won’t be counting women,” the helmer tells Variety. “It means that there’s still something wrong, that there’s still something that hasn’t become completely normal and natural.”
With “Banel & Adama,” billed as a female emancipation drama about two star-crossed lovers in northern Senegal, Sy will also join the short list of filmmakers competing for Cannes’ highest honor with their debut features — among them Diop and another French Senegalese director, Ladj Ly (“Les Misérables”).
Sy was born and raised in a Parisian banlieue, the daughter of Senegalese immigrants. Film was an unlikely calling. “My parents can’t read and write. They had no connection with art or literature,” she says. “We wouldn’t go to the movies.”
After studying at France’s prestigious La Fémis film school, Sy co-wrote Atiq Rahimi’s “Our Lady of the Nile,” which played at Toronto, as well as Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s Locarno competition selection “Sibel.” She went on to direct her first short film, “Astel,” which screened at more than 80 international festivals.
While her early scripts drew on life in the banlieues, Sy set herself a challenge with “Banel & Adama” to write a story that would be “more literary, more lyrical, to have something very poetic in the writing to show that I didn’t only belong to this background,” she says. She was inspired by Greek tragedy, and classical heroines like Phaedra, Antigone and Medea, while also drawing on magical realism and the tradition of the West African griot. It would be, she hoped, “the greatest love story in Africa.”
“Banel & Adama” is set in a remote Senegalese village and follows two lovers, played by first-time actors Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo, whose torrid romance spurns their families’ conservative mores — and eventually brings chaos to a community where “there is no room for passion,” according to Sy. Gradually, the movie shifts its focus to Adama and becomes a meditation on a woman’s fight to fulfill herself.
Pic is produced by Eric Névé and Maud Leclair Névé at La Chauve-Souris (“The Pirogue”), and Margaux Juvénal at Take Shelter, with Souleymane Kébé at Astou Production co-producing. Best Friends Forever is handling world sales.
Though raised in Paris, Sy traveled often to her parents’ native Senegal from childhood and visits frequently when she’s not in the French capital. Culturally and spiritually, she is a product of both worlds. “I feel completely Senegalese and French,” she says.
When she began working on the script for “Banel & Adama” nearly a decade ago, it was a radically different time for African cinema. “I felt that all the stories about Africa dealt with poverty, with terrorism, with violence,” she says.
That’s begun to change, thanks to a new generation like Diop and Sy, who describes her debut as a “political gesture.” Her Cannes premiere, she says, is a “precious moment” that she’s spent years building toward. “It’s my life. It’s my whole life.”