BANEL & ADAMA – Review by Jennifer Green

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If you know nothing about this fascinating and visually stunning film going in, you can conjecture all sorts of themes and meanings from it. Banel & Adama is an essentially feminist tale about a strong-headed and independent African woman restricted by tradition and duty, and seemingly falling into mental illness. It is also a film about the impact of climate change on one village, where food sources are drying up or dying off during a long season of drought. It could likewise be seen as a story about globalization and modernization, and the loss of local autonomy or traditions.

Or maybe it’s simply a tragic love story, in the vein of Romeo & Juliet. That’s what director Ramata Toulaye-Sy, born to and raised in Paris by Senegalese parents, has said in interviews about her inspiration for the story, set in northern Senegal and filmed in local Fula language but intended to be universal in nature. She compares her female lead Banel (played by non-professional actor Khady Mane, across also non-pro Mamadou Diallo as Adama) to tragic characters like Medea, Phaedre, Antigone and especially Lady MacBeth.

Banel’s story is indeed a tragic one. But before events take this turn, she is bold, empowered, self-assured and madly in love with her husband, Adama. We learn she was previously the second wife of Adama’s older brother, Yero, but she and Adama were always in love and wed after Yero died. Banel and Adama have big plans to move away from the family’s village. They work on digging out a nearby house from under a mountain of sand as their future home.

Banel especially finds village life stifling, a place where women are expected to serve the community, cover their hair and above all give their husbands’ sons. She pushes against expectations on her and Adama – resisting traditions and the inherited limitations of village customs, ancestral beliefs, religion, family and gender. She convinces Adama to turn down the elders who call on him to become the next village chief, but when things start to go badly in the village, Adama gets blamed.

The heat and accompanying drought lead to famine, killing off livestock and eventually people. Adama can’t help but care, detaching him from Banel, whose only desire is to live alone with her great love. Her initial passion begins to dry up and wither away, just like their water-starved village, and she begins acting less and less rationally. She hints she may have done things to bring them together (we’re left wondering what – did she have a role in Yero’s death? Her own pregnancy’s end?).

The film’s look evolves with its characters. Color tones fade over the course of events. We see Banel’s bright yellow shirt slowly lighten. Leafy trees turn skeletal. Villagers go from bathing in a deep blue river to having to hide from billowing sandstorms. As shot by director of photography Amine Berrada, the village takes on an increasingly sandy appearance in the drought, a whiteness perhaps symbolic of the impact of Western countries on Africa, from colonization to global warming.

These metaphorical readings don’t feel far-fetched in a film as visually poetic as this one. Images are framed in such a way as to leave a lasting impression, like the fiery glow the burning sun leaves on your closed eyelids. The glistening waters where Banel and Adama bathe are reminiscent of an impressionist painting. A scene where Adama turns to look at Banel, head covered with a red scarf and framed in front of a window, looks like an African Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Banel & Adama premiered in the official selection at Cannes and played in other festivals such as Toronto and Melbourne, where it won a “Bright Horizons” award. It was also Senegal’s nomination to this year’s International Oscar, where it deserved to make the shortlist. But films like this one can feel impenetrable to audiences raised on faster-paced fare and cause-effect storytelling. The first eight minutes, before the title credit even appears, is an amalgamation of gorgeous snapshot images and the retelling of a local myth that set a tone but explain little and could feel disorienting.

However, it is precisely the boldness of her visual style, the strength of her artistic inspirations and the fearlessness of her magical realist narrative that speak to the confidence in Toulaye-Sy’s directorial debut.

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.