Banel & Adama (2023)

Lusciously beautiful: the doomed romance in Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s poetic debut feature Banel & Adama takes place amid the severe effects of climate change in remote northeastern Senegal.

Dry Season

by Alexa Dalby

Banel & Adama

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

What you notice first about Banel & Adama are the bright colours. Then that tradition still dominates daily life in this village in remote northeastern Senegal on the borders of the Sahel.

Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) are inseparable lovers in this idyllic setting and that’s how we first see them. But, against expectations, they are also married. We discover that Adama did his Muslim duty by marrying his elder brother’s second wife Banel when his brother died in an accident in a well.

They are planning to live together in a nuclear relationship, just the two of them, apart from the rest of the village. It’s a break with tradition that the older villagers can’t understand. But first they have to dig out the two disused houses outside the village, covered up to their roofs by mountains of sand. It’s a metaphor to watch the two human figures digging at the huge heap with spades.

Banel wants more from a destiny in which her every move is circumscribed, even down to the correct way to sit. “Ain’t I a woman?” she exclaims angrily in Sojourner Truth’s words, in one of her many voiceovers that guide our experience of the film. The director’s use of colours in her clothes (yellow and red) shows how separate she is from the blue dress of the more traditional villagers, including Adama’s disapproving mother (Binta Root Sy).

But as the film progresses, we realise Banel loves Adama almost obsessively. She believes he is different from other men, who are all interchangeably the same. She aims her catapult with a practised eye, casually killing songbirds and frogs.

The villagers believe her flouting of women’s role and the natural order has brought disaster. Climate change means the rains don’t come, the once-fertile land has become arid, cows and old people die, young men leave. Those who are left blame Banel and also Adama, for not taking up his heritage as chief. But the winds of change may be brewing, partly through global warming and partly women’s need for freedom from tradition.

Banel & Adama seems like a series of beautiful snippets in a truncated film. The story is told obliquely and reveals itself as slowly as the pace of life in the village. The composition of the scenes of the lovers by the river at dusk are stunning. The bright colours are unexpected and the use of colours tells its own story. There are magical effects such as the flocks of low-flying crows and the encompassing sandstorm.

Writer/director Sy has achieved wonderful performances from non-professional actors, speaking dialogue in the local language of Pula. The film overall looks magical, thanks to cinematographer Amine Berrada, who says…

“The whole aesthetic challenge was to create the sensation of dryness in the image, to make viewers experience the environment. The director’s idea was to use natural elements to show the characters feelings and emotions. She didn’t want the kind of naturalistic African film you’d expect.

Banel & Adama opens with a very soft, pastel exposure, like in a daydream, followed by a perfectly framed, graphic image to convey the orderly manner of this traditional village community. There’s also a rather slow rhythm which defines the temporality of this region. Finally, the film ends up in total chaos: a sandstorm and some unbalanced, overexposed images, which stand in stark contrast to the beginning of the film.

“It was the idea of disharmony that interested me. The film is divided into three parts, and the idea was to gradually bring in desaturation and overexposure as the story progressed. We made a conscious choice to do that.”

image copyright Benjamin Silvestre

Banel & Adama premiered in Competition at Cannes. It is Senegal’s entry for the International Oscars. Banel & Adama is released on 15 March 2024 in the UK.

Join the discussion