top of page

Banel and Adama: The best love story of the year is a Black film you haven’t even heard of.

What do you think your divine purpose is?

Because Ramata-Toulaye Sy thinks it is to love. Debuts are painfully exposing. What you choose to say matters. Whether you like it or not, they serve as a manifesto for the type of filmmaker you want to be and it seems Ramata-Toulaye Sy wants to be one who tells stories about his people with as much love as the film’s titular characters Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) hold for one another. 

We are a generation devoid of earnestness, and it is starting to show in our art. Rom-Coms no longer have the same overflowing giddiness they used to because the need to be ‘cool’ or ‘realistic’ has trumped out the desire to believe wholeheartedly in the existence of a great love. Romantic dramas like One Day seek to make you fall in love and then to humble you with the coldness of reality.

man and a woman stand back to back the sun lights them from behind
Banel and Adama

This film undoes that. There is no ‘cool’, pessimistically post-modern interpretation of love in Banel and Adama. Love in this film is idealistic and dreamy- so, so dreamy. Adama writes he and his lover’s names together over and over again like a lovesick child in a little notebook with such devotion, you would think he was jotting down bits of scripture. Our hearts as a culture need to be thawed and Sy’s debut takes a blowtorch to that fashionable cynicism that has robbed us of belief. 

Set in a Northern-Senegalese village, the film takes place in Pulaar (a specific dialectic, offshoot of Fula), a language so rich in rhythm and melody you can’t help but feel like Sy has been handed a secret weapon to elevate his film.

The two leads are opposites in almost every way; Adama is softly spoken and introverted, more likely to lower his gaze in a moment of heat than his lover Banel- a firecracker in every sense of the word-is. Her rebellion is not rooted in a white misinterpretation of her nature as a Black woman. Her frustration is valid, the boxes her people keep trying to shove her into of ‘mother’ and ‘dutiful wife’ too small for her. When she pushes back, you understand- and support- her firmly.  We watch the couple fend off the judgements of the other villagers, their own insecurities and wrestle with what it means to be so emotionally isolated in a place filled with people.

a woman in a yellow top sits at the base of a tree with tangled roots

Their village believes that Adama is destined to be their leader; he believes he was put on this earth to love this young widowed woman very few approve of. 

It is a tried and tested formula for writing a love story (what is more exciting than a love that is forbidden and misunderstood?) but here it is elevated by the masterful direction of Sy, and an understanding that no good love story exists in isolation from the real world. Banel and Adama sit waiting patiently for their dream home to become habitable after a sandstorm sweeps through their village.

They are at odds with the climate, Sy taking this opportunity to point out the consequence of Western policy and recklessness on African communities. Climate disasters in the region have increased in the last few years, famine and drought driven by environmental changes displacing entire communities. It is the people who love their environments the most who are being punished by it. 

woman faces a man, they are lying in green grass
Banel and Adama

Banel and Adama has real stakes, because it has real people at the centre of it, literally. Neither Khady Mane nor Mamadou Diallo (the two leads) have ever acted professionally before, which feels impossible when you watch them navigate this story so effortlessly. The film was shot in Senegal too and that authenticity shines through in every way. This is an African film just as it is a romantic drama. There is a subtlety and quiet to the picture that is hypnotic. Sy is already a master at capturing stillness, letting the camera linger in all the right places. There are moments that feel almost documentary style, shots of vast open land and beautiful bodies of water interweaved within the wider narrative. Faith and mysticism play a role in these people’s lives and their perceptions of things like purpose, but it also flows through the setting. 

Bong Joon-Ho famously said that ‘once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films’ as he accepted his much deserved Oscar for Parasite. He is-of course- correct. This film simply would not have worked as well in English or even French. This is a film that is just as much about Banel and Adama as it is about their home and its culture. It’s a pleasure to watch two people love one another as thoroughly and earnestly as Banel and Adama do. It is even more of pleasure to watch them do it in their native tongue, Sy not compromising in an attempt to serve a wider, whiter demographic. 

It is why when a film like Past Lives breaks into the cultural discourse, it becomes difficult to bear the expected, tiring counter wave of criticism, the yells of ‘overrated’ that take ahold like clockwork. If it were up to the mainstream (and by the mainstream I mean the classic gatekeepers of culture, the white film critics and their white ‘film bro’ followers), we would die before our work got the attention and love it deserved.

How many films by Black and brown creatives will fly under the radar because we as audiences do not seek to explore beyond our own white-centric tastes? How many more times must we watch an African artist’s work ignored and relegated to the bottom of a ‘hidden gem’ feature years after it's completed because there is no one trying to see it, see us as capable and worthy?

We have declared ourselves ready as a culture for yearning and earnestness to make a comeback. With Banel and Adama, it feels as though Sy has captured love itself and placed it in the room with you. As a film, it is as sensual and intimate as a lover whispering in your ear. 

The question is not does Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut land with impact (it unequivocally does). The question is will you hear its call and let yourself be swept away in its romance the way I was.



bottom of page