Interview with Ramata-Toulaye Sy, director of Astel
Tuesday 1 February 2022, by
It’s October, the end of the rainy season in Fouta, an isolated region in the north of Senegal. Astel (13) accompanies her father every day in the bush. Together, they look after their herd of cows. But one day, in the middle of the desert, the meeting between the young girl and a shepherd disrupts the peaceful daily life between Astel and her father.
Where did inspiration for Astel come from?
From my personal experience, from the strong bond I had with my father when I was young and my fear of entering the female “world” at an age when I wasn’t ready yet. The story, Astel’s story, is one I lived through, not in Senegal but in France, in Bezons, the town where I was born and grew up.
How important was it for you to have the story in a rural setting?
Astel is a universal story that talks about the love between a father and his daughter, and even though it’s true I could have set it here in France, it was important to me to transpose the story to the Futa, a rural region in northern Senegal where my parents come from. I wanted to stimulate people’s imaginations with this film by tackling topics that unfortunately are still too seldom dealt with in African films. Because great love stories, the passage from childhood to adulthood like Astel experiences, the quest for identity, all that is also part of daily life for Africans. And it’s important to depict the continent’s beauty and the complexity of its people.
How did you go about selecting the actors?
All the actors in the film are non-professionals. The Fulani are quite modest, both morally and physically: in the way they look at you, their body, their movements, their personality, etc. That’s why it was important for me to work with inhabitants of the region in order to be as faithful as possible to their nature. I was lucky enough to be able to work with Iman Dijonne, the casting director, who crisscrossed the area in search of my characters. Most of the inhabitants of the Futa are illiterate and live in villages with no electricity. They have almost no relationship to images, and even less to films. When I got there, in order to make my final decisions, I spent a lot of time talking with the preselected people – about their daily life, their family, their dreams, and so on. I did not choose people based on tryouts revolving around the script, but on my meetings with them and on their tendencies.
Are you specifically interested in the question of the transition from childhood to adulthood and do you see yourself exploring the topic in other films?
I think what genuinely interests me, which I explore in all the films I make and co-write, is the jump from young girl to woman, and the thoughts and disappointments that go with that. How do traditions, cultures, personalities inform the way young girls experience that passage: Is it brutal? Unconscious? Mythical? Powerful? That’s precisely what I’m trying to talk about in Astel.
What interested you in the sudden break in the emotional relationship between the characters?
That nothing is ever explained to Astel. That everything happens through what is not said and through silences. That breakups can’t be talked about, and love even less so. That during her transition a young girl is forced to make sense of everything on her own. That she has to deal with her own emotions and external emotions alone at a time when everything is changing inside her and around her. How violent, but also beautiful, that can be. How brutal, but also melancholy, that can be. I wanted to talk about the loneliness of this moment for Astel, but about her father too, who is also a victim of traditions and of his culture.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
I like Lynn Ramsay’s Small Death a lot. It’s brilliant with its (presumed) simplicity, subtly and poetically describing three moments of disappointment in a young girl’s childhood and adolescence. That short film made a strong impression on me because it deals with topics that are dear to me.
What’s your definition of a good film?
A film that’s a mix of fun, theater, daring, creativity, artistic vision, with a strong social subject. To give an example of a recent film, I think Parasite checks all the boxes of what makes a great film.