The notebook bears the mark of obsession: the names Banel and Adama are included dozens of times across pages in delicate italics. The writer is Banel (Khady Mane), a lively and expressive young woman who is captivated by her love for Adama (Mamadou Diallo). She whispers their names to herself like a witch casting a spell: “Banel e Adama, Banel e Adama, Banel e Adama.” Their union, she tells the people in their small northern Senegalese village, is the work of fate.
It is indeed no secret that Banel loves Adama. In the opening scenes of Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s visually gripping yet narratively oblique feature debut Banel & Adama, we see the couple excavating two houses buried under layers of sand. They work towards a dream, toiling under the oppressive sun, so they can build a house and life outside the village. Other flashes of the daily routine gesture at the depth of their affection, with conspiratorial smiles, expectant looks and loving caresses exchanged. Their displays are foreign to the traditionally demure people of their village. Others frown on the couple, but maintain a certain amount of contempt for Banel.
Banel & Adama
It comes down to
A stunningly evoked world in need of a sharper narrative.
Banel rejects conventions, drawing suspicion from the villagers. Why is she cross-legged like the men, instead of stretched out like the women? Why won’t she do the laundry or tend the field like the other women? How is it possible that a year after her marriage to Adama, who is next in line to become chef, Banel is still childless? These questions follow the couple like flies, buzzing as they go about their lives. Banel and Adama ignore the disapproving looks and comments because their love is enough. But the stakes of their relationship, as presented on screen, never quite come through. Of Banel & Adama, Ramata-Toulaye Sy has conjured up a stunning world in need of a sharper story.
The director’s vision is undeniably beautiful. Sy paints breathtaking scenes with her camera, demonstrating a beautiful way of seeing the world. Colors have new levels of personality: the azure blue of the river where Adama and Banel take a dip early in the movie shimmers under the scorching sun. There’s something mischievous about the yellow of Banel’s T-shirt as we watch her watch Adama meet the village men, who all wear complementary shades of blue. They try to convince him to take the position of chief, an offer he rejected in an earlier scene due to his love for Banel. Adama, who plays Diallo with quiet innocence, doesn’t want the responsibility.
That decision has consequences. After Adama turns down the role of chief, catastrophic events take place in the village. A prolonged drought kills all the cattle, forcing the men to leave their homes for work elsewhere. People begin to die, creating a steady procession of funerals, all of which Adama must lead. This destruction is depicted with devastating beauty and gestures towards the harmful effects of climate change in countries like Senegal. Sy, along with DP Amine Berrada and a laconic score by composer Bachar Mar-Khalifé, deftly convey the progression of the village’s demise. The arid conditions strip the sand of its color, turning what was once a desaturated orange almost white. The bodies of cattle decompose, leaving brittle and dried out skin. Brown mounds mark the site of newly dug graves.
The village’s decline weakens the relationship between Banel and Adama, as the latter becomes increasingly convinced that rejecting his post cursed his people. When Adama spends more time on his duties, he leaves Banel to endure the judgmental stares of other villagers and harbor her paranoid thoughts. Her love for Adama and anger at his absence fuels her anger, which Mane plays with chilling precision. Watching Banel unravel is one of the most interesting parts of Sy’s movie. The mercurial character resembles the opaque women of novels such as Toni Morrison’s Sula and that of Helen Oyeyemi Boy, Snow, Bird, a reinterpretation of “Snow White.” Like those women, Banel embodies a fierce and uncompromising independence, an intimidating self-assurance, and an expressive and refreshing emotional range driven by her desire.
It’s clear that Banel will do anything to keep Adama to himself, so it’s disappointing that the crumbling of Adama and Banel’s relationship doesn’t spark the same curiosity. Sy spends so much time showing the disintegration of the village that the couple who took us there loses. The film falls into a kind of stupor and a languorous rhythm and loses itself in its own images.
Returning to Banel and Adama picks up the pace and restores some of the tension. In one of the most terrifying scenes, Banel, fed up with Adama’s inattention, leads her lover to the site of their dream house. She instructs him to dig and he does until his hands bleed. There is a cruel desperation at this moment, a flash of fear in Banel’s face and a flicker of fear in Adama’s. It complicates their romance and piques our interest Banel & Adama by reminding us that love is its own kind of abomination.