Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut feature, Banel & Adama, is an acutely measured film that concocts a fable-like story around the passionate liaison between its eponymous protagonists. It begins with an almost idyllic state of things, casting the lovers in the halcyon of unwavering affection. Outside the precincts of a Senegalese village, they hope to live together in a forsaken house buried under the sand. But, as Adama works day and night to excavate the building, the narrative uncovers layers of friction that extend beyond an individual’s control. The village elders warn Adama of an unspoken curse that makes the house uninhabitable, and the dark past behind Banel’s union with Adama haunts the story. Social relations deteriorate when an uncompromising drought befalls the region, threatening the village with death and pestilence.
The director tacitly adopts a folkloric structure in the story, where themes spanning moral culpability, the irrepressible consequences of past wrongs, or the intractable destiny of mortals find expression through readily recognizable tropes. At the same time, the narrative appears peppered with references to local stories and beliefs unique to the cultural geography. Their significance remains sensibly opaque and unextracted, including Banel’s grasping of a wind pocket by hand or the tale of underwater sirens seeking vengeance. There is an undeniable eco-critical underpinning in the story that maps the disproportionate consequences of climate catastrophe. And it is nothing short of remarkable how Ramata-Toulaye Sy couches her critique within universally familiar concerns while being cosmologically provincial to the story’s location.