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Glasgow Film Festival 2024 – Banel & Adama ★★★★



Released: 15 March 2024

Director: Ramata-Toulaye Sy

Starring: Khady Mane, Mamadou Diallo

A feminist voice sweeps through the Senegalese love story that unfolds within Banel & Adama, not least due to the placing of the female character’s name first within the film’s title. The words Banel & Adama are uttered and written several times throughout the film poetically as a combined force within itself. For Banel, impressively played by Khady Mane, as part of this young married couple, she believes in all-consuming love – where one part of their couple does not exist without the other. As such, this stunning feature directorial debut by Ramata-Toulaye Sy feels Shakespearean in its depiction of star crossed lovers, inevitably drawing comparison to the romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

Yet, director Sy insists, within a Q&A, that may be where the comparisons should end. Firstly, she mentions that Banel is front and centre within this tale as the driving force and that despite a sense of impending doom – Banel is not as naive as Juliet. Indeed, throughout the film’s runtime Banel’s reasoning may seem questionable when her actions seem desperate and bordering hysteria.

The film’s depiction of the obstacles for young love is compelling as the young couple face the burden of the conflict between love and duty. Banel is unconventional – refusing to submit to performing the expected wifely duties and being subservient. Banel wishes to escape the humdrum life of their small village with Adama (Mamadou Diallo). She harbours desires to live in nearby houses with Adama, symbolising her ambition, but these houses may also unwittingly provide that sense of foreboding and the unwanted creep of modernity. However, Banel’s wants are thwarted by the pressures faced by Adama, who bears the obligation to become the chief of the village to help the community, despite his initial refusal. When a drought appears within the village, following Adama’s refusal, the tension directed towards the couple is accelerated.

Thus, Banel & Adama takes the time to explore the drought’s impact on the life of the village in opposition to Banel and Adama’s intention to forge their own path. Sy worked closely with a Moroccan DOP to showcase the dry, sandy location which provides beautiful, evocative imagery and draws comparison to Dune, in that sense. The mesmerising cinematography of sandstorms unveils a degree of romanticism in stark contrast to the hardship of village life. Indeed, there is a stylistic flair adopted by Sy whereby some freeze frame shots resemble modelling shoots of the characters with the sun glowing on their skin. Sy has adopted good lighting to complement the actors skin tones which equally creates that reverberating sense of beauty.

It is therefore unsurprising that Banel & Adama was selected as Senegal’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. The film’s mysticism combined with its striking imagery, such as scenes with a flock of birds, are remarkable. Furthermore, the natural landscape settings are painterly composed. Sy has indeed taken the opportunity to include such artistic touches to her film which are breathtaking.

Despite the film’s outward beauty, there are scenes depicting intolerable cruelty where Banel’s intense love renders her unlikeable and at times cruel. Sy offers no excuse for the character and as such the film is a fascinating portrayal of a woman’s unravelling as she faces an inner turmoil borne out of frustration. Banel may not seem a sympathetic character, at times, but is intriguing, humane and multi-faceted. The performance by Mane, in her first professional acting role, is outstanding with a visceral energy conveying Banel’s anguish as her dreams haunt her too and offer no respite for the character.

The emphasis on dreams also leans in to the spiritual side of a community believing in legacy, superstition and religious symbolism. As such, the drought is viewed as a punishment and the very houses that Banel & Adama wished to inhabit seem like judgmental towers at the gates of Hell. This sense of the surreal conjures up a maelstrom of emotions and is thematically rich as Sy uncompromisingly refuses to provide a definitive conclusion to this tale of ambition and love.

Banel & Adama is a powerful expression of a woman’s voice that refuses to be dismissed in a battle to express her needs and to carve out her own identity. The film richly blends Senegalese traditional structures against this expression of modernity. It is an impactful film that exemplifies the need for more authentic storytelling about the African diaspora beyond the negative depictions from films about terrorists and poverty. Sy’s portrayal of a woman that is too progressive for her time will leave a powerful, lingering message on viewers. Hopefully, this will ensure that Sy, similar to Mati Diop, is recognised as part of the growing canon of impressive female Senegalese directors.

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