A young couple's romance threatens a drought-stricken village in Ramata-Toulaye Sy's stirring debut.
The names Banel and Adama echo throughout Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut feature like an incantation. Ghostly voices whisper them, a hand scrawls them in a notebook over and over; they are rarely separated as words or, in fact, as people. A young couple in a remote Senegalese village, they are both obsessed with and haunted by their togetherness.
With its balletic choreography of performance and statuesque visual approach, Sy’s film is a work of remarkable composition. Through often static and poised imagery, closer to photographic work, the filmmaker and DoP Amine Berrada play with notions of structure to convey the restrictive traditions of Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama’s (Mamadou Diallo) home. Banel, reluctant to have children and eager to work in the fields with Adama, rebels against the norms of the village where the elders would rather she fulfil her supposed duties as a woman.
Adama struggles too, refusing to inherit the title of village chief that his lineage grants and his mother desires for him. Yet, where what Adama feels is closer to guilt — he fears the drought devastating their land is a holy punishment for his refusal — Banel is tormented by graver suffering. Losing Adama to the ways of the village would mean total destruction for a woman intent on breaking free.
As the village elders’ grip on Banel and Adama’s fate tightens, Banel grows more and more fragile. Her twin brother tells her he has always been the twin of reason while she has been the twin of heart, but, in the blistering heat of the drought, that heart grows toxic. She is desperate to live alone with Adama in a house submerged by sand; he does what he can to rescue the property and restore it, but the task is Sisyphean.
Their pained digging through the dunes reflects the fight between dedication and futility that defines their social rebellions. Later, Sy’s subtle storytelling hints at the violence that has long existed inside Banel, the violence that may be the very basis of her relationship with Adama. A sniper with a slingshot, she seeks out lizards to kill in the desert and then burns their bodies in a campfire.
Visceral sound design complements the rigidity of the images, marking the feverish decay of Banel’s mental state within the confines of her circumstances. Sy’s commentary on the changing role of women within this community and the pressures of tradition works effectively in tandem with the more abstract genre elements of the film, balancing the loftier, more spectral design with grounded narrative.
Every movement, every shot is deployed with such confidence and the filmmaker draws compelling performances from both Mane, graceful even in all of Banel’s distress, and Diallo, regal yet soft in equal measure. It’s all an impressive sign of Sy’s formal rigour and deft evocation of place, but the film works on simpler terms, too — at the heart of Banel & Adama is the cosmic love story of two people who are meant to be together, no matter what it takes.
Published 22 May 2023
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