Nineteen-year-old Adama (Mamadou Diallo) refuses to become the village chief after their leader (his older brother Yero) dies by falling into the water well. Yet he has little choice, with his people mandating that he takes up the role. He is more concerned with his relationship to the equally young Banel (Khady Mane), who he married immediately after his brother’s death. The short-haired and short-tempered woman is Yero’s widow. The newly-wed were infatuated long before Yero died: Banel married the former tribal leader against her will, in a closely-knit society where arranged matrimonies help to vouch for the community’s survival and insularity.
The landscape is extremely barren, and rain as scarce as gold. The precarious clay houses are often devoured by sand storms. The scorching heat takes its tolls on people and animals. Cattle constantly dry of dehydration, while people cannot sleep because either the temperature is unbearable or they have to give water to the slowly succumbing animals in the middle of the night. An inhospitable environment in which you would only want to live if you had no other choice. The titular lovebirds long to leave, however every member of the community (including Banel’s twin brother) are prepared to stand on their way in order to ensure that they adhere to the old way of life.
Banel is a rebel. She refuses to have a baby, despite being told that it is her duty to do so. She also rejects the idea that all men are the same, instead insisting that Adame is different (thereby evoking the wrath of a jealous villager secretly besotted with our protagonist). She has read and memorised the entire Quran, however her attitude suggests that she interpreted the holy texts in a manner incompatible with her people’s. Perhaps religious doctrine can liberate women after all? She is impulsive, and driven by passion. She becomes the most determined warrior (Adama is a lot more reluctant) in the battles lyrically portrayed in the film: tradition versus change, reason versus intuition, and also mankind versus the forces of nature.
Our female protagonist confronts nature with a little slingshot. She kills a bird, a lizard, and she is likely prepared to step up her efforts. Mother nature reacts furiously. A flock of birds attacks our female heroine, in the movie’s most visually impressive (however brief) sequence. This is a feature dotted with simple yet powerful imagery, strong sounds (the wind, the slingshot, etc) and poetry. At times, it is almost a sensory experience. You can almost feel it when Banel caresses the straw roof of one of the houses. This lyricism however isn’t enough to sustain a lumbering and partly incoherent storyline. As a result, Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut feature becomes torpid and languid at times. You might lose interest before you reach the potent end of this 87-film movie.
Banel & Adama premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It is extremely rare for a sub-Saharan African film, particularly one directed by a woman, to win a top prize at Cannes. The only one to do so thus far was Mati Diop’s Atlantics four years ago (incidentally also from Senegal). Sy’s film did not challenge the deeply rooted orthodoxy, however it is commendable that Cannes should continue to include such films in their Official selection.
The UK premiere takes place in October as part of the BFI London Film Festival. Also showing at Rotterdam.