Youngest Senegalese filmmaker becomes the second Black woman to ever compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival

Dollita Okine May 24, 2023
The feature film which garnered Sy more fame at the Cannes festival, tells the story of a young couple, “Banel & Adama,” whose love is put to the test. Photo credit Cineuropa

Meet 36-year-old Ramata-Toulaye Sy, the youngest Senegalese screenwriter and film director making waves with her first feature film, “Banel & Adama,” at the Cannes Festival.

Her debut at the event marks the second time a Black woman has competed for the Palme d’Or prize since the inception of the festival 76 years ago; following in the footsteps of Mati Diop, another French-Senegalese filmmaker.

The promising director was born to immigrant Senegalese parents in the outskirts of Paris. Her parents cannot read and write, and in her childhood days, they wouldn’t even go to the movies. Sy recounts that they had no relations or interest in art or culture, according to Variety.

Before she took the stage for the premiere of her film at the Cannes Festival she said “I really hope that soon, all this will be taken for granted – that we won’t be counting the Black directors, that we won’t be counting women. It means that there’s still something wrong, that there’s still something that hasn’t become completely normal and natural.”

Sy had her education at La Fémis Film School in France. She began her journey as a helmer, co-writing “Our Lady of the Nile” with Atiq Rahimi, and “Sibel,” with Çagla Zenciri and Guillaume Giovanettti for the Locarno competition selection. Her first short film, “Astel” screened at more than 80 international festivals.

Her feature film, which garnered her more fame at the Cannes festival, tells the story of a young couple, “Banel & Adama,” whose love is put to the test by the traditions of their village, located in northern Senegal, on the border of Mauritania; according to Africa News.

Sy explained that she wanted to really deconstruct the vision of Africa and cinema in the minds of people, and added that she fashioned the lead female character, Banel, as the opposite of the oppressed, Black African woman who seeks help that everyone is used to. She further explained that it is so much better that people find it difficult to like the character because of her unsympathetic nature.

Speaking to Cineuropa, the young filmmaker said she centered her movie in Africa to change the register, and disclosed that the screenplay is from her last year at La Fémis. According to her, she spent her first three years writing scripts set in France, however, this time she felt the call of Africa to reconnect with her origins.

The French-Senegalese director challenged herself to write a story that would be more literary, more lyrical, to have something very poetic in the writing to show that she didn’t only belong to this background. Sy is of a mixed heritage, and expressed that she feels completely Senegalese and French.

She revealed that when she first commenced her writing for the script of the film in 2014, she felt that all the stories about Africa dealt with poverty, terrorism, and violence. Thus she calls this opportunity a “political gesture.”

Her journey has so far led her to win the Share Her Journey award for her short film ‘Astel’, at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. She also won the SACD Award and a Special Jury Prize at the 2022 Clemont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, AllAfrica reported.

Establishing that she knew her worth even before international recognition, Sy said, “I know that in the articles, people always say ‘Who is she? We don’t know her. ’” She added, “But I know myself, I have been here for a long time. I work and have worked to be here. I didn’t just end up here yesterday, in fact. I studied film, I was at university, I went to La Fémis, I co-wrote features.  So you didn’t know me. But today, you know me.”

Last Edited by:Editor Updated: June 11, 2023


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