In a feat of desperation and fear, a young Banel (Khady Mane) drags her husband, Adama (Mamadou Diallo), by the hand, under a blazing Sahelian sun, toward mountains of sand. Hidden underneath are the structural bones of once-abandoned houses. On arrival, Banel forces Adama into the sand and commands him to dig. With no tools around them, she tells him to use his hands. “Dig! Dig! Dig!” she yells at him, her voice straining with every utterance of the word. “Dig,” she tells him. Adama does as he is told.
For Banel, digging into the sand was more than just the physical act; she was asking him to dig for their home, for their future, for their freedom as two teenagers in love who want to forge their own path. But this is not where their love story begins.
In an interview with CNN, Ramata-Toulaye Sy, the French-Senegalese writer/director, said that the script for her feature debut, Banel & Adama, which premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and also screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), sat in her drawer for almost 10 years before she was ready to direct it. The film is a nuanced and engrossing love story that centers its eponymous characters as they try to build and understand their life together while living under the shadow of tradition and obligation of the rural community they come from.
The script for Banel & Adama was written during Sy’s final year at the French film school La Fémis between 2014 and 2015 but the years before the film debuted at festivals across the world this year, Sy co-wrote the feature films Sibel (2018) and Our Lady of the Nile (2019). In 2021, Sy premiered her first directorial project, Astel, at TIFF. The short film takes place in Fouta-Toro, a remote region of northern Senegal, and follows the story of 13-year-old Astel, whose strong bond with her father and their daily ritual of looking after their herd of cows is interrupted by a life-changing encounter with a shepherd.
In Banel & Adama, Sy takes us back to the desert of northern Senegal, where rules and conventions thwart the dreams of a couple who seek to experience their love in their own way. Banel, who becomes our central focus, has been in love with Adama since they were children. She was first married to his older brother, Yero, the village chief, who loses his life prematurely when he falls to his death in a well. Tradition says that the next chief, Adama, is to marry his brother’s widower. Banel sees this as a gift from God; she and her true love can finally be together. But her dream of what the conditions of their inevitable union will look like doesn’t align with what is culturally expected of them. Their goal is to live on their own, where they can create their own happiness. But that happiness comes at a cost and the people of their village don’t hesitate to remind them.
Sy has stated that she drew much of her inspiration for the film on her roots in the Fula culture, in the Fouta region of northern Senegal. These mostly pastoral communities tend to stick together, moving in unison, with the understanding that decisions are made with everyone in mind. Banel and Adama make choices that are meant to set them apart from the people they came from and while they do whatever they can to not fall into the conventions that have been laid out for them since birth, their efforts create lasting consequences, for them and for their people.
When a drought suddenly strikes, cattle and crops begin to die, and a famine runs rampant for months on end, it’s difficult not to assume that these misfortunes are a result of Banel and Adama’s “rebellion,” and from this moment on there’s a shift in the film. Not only do we feel and see the pressure and tension grow within Banel, her anger toward things that she cannot control also becomes a bit overwhelming, and Adama begins to take the brunt of her bouts of aggression.
Like any filmmaker who understands the richness in nuance, Sy doesn’t allow us to see Banel as a villain. Banel knows what she wants and is also acutely aware that because of her circumstances these can only be materialized with Adama by her side. But as he becomes increasingly absent, everything she envisioned for herself suddenly seems to slip through her fingers.
Under the scorching sun, everything becomes more urgent. The Sahel becomes a character of its own and thanks to the vision of cinematographer Amine Berrada, we are engrossed in this almost whimsical world full of colors, light, and movement. Far from becoming a distraction, the visuals are just as vital as the narrative itself, as they mirror the rapid changes happening within Banel. “You can’t go against your destiny,” Banel says at some point in the film. In her eyes, destiny is what brought her and Adama together, what fuels her dreams. But if destiny is something that we cannot control, who is to know where it may actually lead us?
Banel & Adama is more than just a story of childhood sweethearts; it’s an intimate look at what it means to envision a future for yourself in a setting where everything is already predetermined for you.