CNN  — 

When the lineup for the Cannes Film Festival was announced on April 13, it featured plenty of familiar names: Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes; Cannes stalwarts including Hirokazu Kore-eda, Ken Loach and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Towards the end of the list was Ramata-Toulaye Sy – not yet a familiar name, but that could be about to change.

A surprise addition to the official selection, French Senegalese director Sy has joined a small club of filmmakers to compete for the Palme d’Or – the festival’s top prize – with their first feature. (The last time this happened was in 2019, when Mati Diop and Ladj Ly – both with connections to Africa – won second and third prizes respectively.)

As debuts go, it’s a daunting one. Few places possess a more glaring spotlight than Cannes, and premiering a movie there is a trial by fire that tests the nerves of even the most experienced filmmakers. (There’s a reason reviews are embargoed until after actors and directors have walked the red carpet.) For Sy, who has only previously attended the festival as a student, it’s a leap into the big leagues. But anyone who’s watched her short film “Astel” will have seen she possesses talent in abundance.

Her feature film “Banel & Adama” features a young couple (played by Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo) at odds with their community in northern Senegal, the region where Sy’s parents were born. Cast with non-professional actors who perform in local language Pulaar, the director said the film draws on her dual nationality and the storytelling traditions of both Europe and Africa, combining “everything I know, everything I am and everything that I love.”

Ahead of the film’s premiere later this month, she spoke on a video call to discuss her festival debut, streaming versus cinemas and the state of African filmmaking.

Ramata-Toulaye Sy, pictured at The Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, December 2021.

The following interview was conducted in French via a translator, and has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: Competing for the Palme d’Or with your debut feature is a huge achievement. What can you share about submitting your film to Cannes?

Sy: The film has been wrapped for a month and a half. We sent a version to Cannes which was not completely finished – there was still color grading to do, a bit of mixing. As soon as they saw it, they called us and said they wanted the film for Un Certain Regard (a separate competition, where new voices are more common). I was really happy because it’s a great selection for a first-time feature. But the day before the press release, Christian Jeune (Cannes deputy general delegate) called me at midnight and announced that the film will be in competition. It was a big surprise for me and all the team.

Where did the idea for “Banel & Adama” come from?

I studied at La Fémis – a film school in France – in the screenplay department and it was my end-of-studies screenplay in 2014 to 2015. Then it sat in a drawer for a long time because I wasn’t ready to direct yet and I was more interested in (screen)writing. I think I needed time to find my voice and navigate the film industry. I started (directing) with a short film, “Astel,” in 2020 and then straight into a feature film in 2022.

What can you share about the story at this stage?

It’s a tragedy. At first, “Banel & Adama” feels like a classic love story; Banel and Adama are a happily married couple living in a remote village in the region of Fouta (northern Senegal). They are fiercely in love. But this love affair is going to bring chaos in the village, because in their community there is no room for passion. Little by little, we realize that this love story focuses more on Banel than Adama – it turns into the story of a woman trying to fulfill herself.

Why set your first feature in Senegal?

Even though I was born and raised in France, I have a deep bond with Africa, and the (West African) Fulani culture and traditions. For me, it is important to tell stories that take place in Africa because this continent has to be seen and needs to be recognized more than it does today, with more universal and different stories – not just stories about how poor the continent is, the war, the terrorism. For me, doing my first feature in Senegal is like a political gesture.

You were born and raised just outside Paris, and live between Paris and Dakar, Senegal today. How has straddling two countries shaped who you are as a person and your voice as a filmmaker?

Having both these nationalities has helped me find my way and has helped me to form my worldview. With “Banel & Adama,” I really confront my double identity. It’s a film with several genres: storytelling with griots – African tales – but also Greek and European tragedy, Afro-American magical realism and poetry.

Could you talk me through the process of casting non-professional actors?

We had the same casting director (as “Astel,” Iman Djionne) who started casting five months before shooting. I really needed people who have the physiognomy of the Fulani and who speak this language. We did several castings in several cities and villages.

Banel was the most complicated character to find. We found her very, very late and it was I who found (Khady Mane) by chance when I was walking in the street. The first thing I saw were her eyes. Banel is quite a mythical and mystical character. In (Khady’s) eyes, there was something quite mysterious – a certain madness. Maybe it’s me imagining, because in real life Khady is a very shy person. But those eyes attracted me, so I asked her to audition the next day.

Sy said that Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" (pictured), Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and the films of Ingmar Bergman were among the inspirations for "Banel & Adama." She showed her lead, Khady Mane, Bruno Nuytten's "Camille Claudel" and François Truffaut's "The Story of Adèle H" to study the work of actor Isabelle Adjani.

With the rise of streaming platforms, there’s perhaps never been greater access to world cinema and African stories. Where do you stand on streaming? Should Netflix come along and say, ‘Here’s a huge check,’ would you consider it?

It’s not me who decides, but rather the international sellers. Of course it’s better to see films at the cinema. Nothing can be more beautiful than the experience of watching on a big screen in a dark room surrounded by strangers. But when you don’t have access, it’s more important to see them anyway. Today, a cinema ticket in France is around €15 ($16.50) – it’s super expensive. There are plenty of families who can’t afford that. In Africa, people have more access on streaming platforms than cinemas. The most important thing is that people see the films.

Senegal has one of the richest cinematic traditions in Africa. What factors do you think have contributed to that?

The Senegalese film scene was very active between the 70s and 90s and then it began to disappear as cinemas started to disappear. Gradually, there were very few screens left. Since the 2010s cinemas have returned. Canal Olympia has opened one movie theater with one screen in Dakar, Cinema Ousmane Sembène followed, and Pathé recently opened a cinema with seven screens. I think the golden age of Senegalese cinema is coming back into force – and this time with more women. I’m very happy to be part of it.

French producer and actor Omar Sy and French director Mathieu Vadepied attend the Senegalese premiere of their film "Tirailleurs" in Dakar, December 2022. The Pathé cinema is one of a number of recent new venues in the capital.

Will you be premiering the film in Senegal any time soon?

Of course! Pathé Afrique is our African distributor. We’ll have an event in their brand-new venue in Dakar.

And will you screen the film in the Fouta region?

I hope so. It is going to be more difficult because of the infrastructure that we’d have to bring over there, like projectors and screens. But yes.

Returning to Cannes, what are you most looking forward to?

The projection in the Grand Theatre Lumière. I’m scared and I’m very excited. Two thousand people in the room, with the press, with the jury. That’s going to be something – it makes you dream.

“Banel & Adama” will have its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, which runs from May 16-27.

Thibault Lacombe contributed to this article.