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Lingui, the Sacred Bonds4
Courtesy of MUBI

Lingui: a quietly furious drama about the fight for abortion rights in Chad

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Palme d’Or-nominated film documents a young girl’s struggle of attaining an abortion in Chad, Africa, where the operation is outlawed

Although he resides in France, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun still shoots his movies in Chad. In 1982, during a civil war in Chad, Haroun, then 21, was forced to flee his home country; escaping to France via Cameroon, he chanced upon a Parisian film school. Since then, Haroun, now 61, has set six of his eight features in Chad. “My address is in France, but I live in Chad,” he tells me over Zoom. “I’m there every two months. If I don’t make a film in Chad, you’ll stop seeing images of Chad. It’s my duty to tell stories about my country.”

On the international circuit, Haroun has showcased Chad to critical acclaim. Bye Bye Africa, Abouna and A Screaming Man won prizes at Venice; at Cannes, he snagged the 2010 Jury Prize and joined Robert De Niro’s judging panel the following year. In 2021, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds was his latest to compete for the Palme d’Or. Located in N’Djamena, Haroun’s quietly furious drama depicts the Sisyphean struggle of attaining an abortion in a country where the operation is outlawed. “I can’t do a small comedy (in Chad) because tragedy is everywhere,” he says. “You can’t laugh.”

In Chad, abortions are not only illegal, they’re forbidden by religion and society. Which spells disaster when 15-year-old Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) becomes pregnant and doesn’t wish to keep the baby. Immediately expelled from school (it’s “bad for our image”, a teacher declares), Maria turns to her mother, Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), for help. To make matters worse, Maria’s expectant child is a product of rape – not that she expects her assaulter to be punished. “In Chad, in our 100 or more local languages, we don’t have a word for ‘rape’,” Haroun sighs. “It could happen, but no one can talk about it.”

One word that does exist is “lingui”, a term for, as the title suggest, a sacred bond, more often than not between women. While “uplifting” isn’t the correct adjective for Haroun’s stark storytelling, it presents the “lingui” of Chadian women joining forces for a teenager in peril. Amina, a single mother who was ostracised for having Maria at 16, goes to extraordinary lengths for her daughter; when Maria tries to drown herself, she’s rescued by the locals without a moment’s hesitation.

“Lingui is a precept in Chad of living together when you belong to the same community,” Haroun explains. “You take care of each other in a spirit of kindness and solidarity. We’re taught that when you die, the first question from God is: ‘How are your neighbours?’” However, Maria’s rapist is literally the man next-door. “I show that the lingui is broken by the neighbour. So the women say, ‘We face the same problems. We’re not going to leave you. We will help you.’ The women build this lingui.”

While typically an abortion drama would focus on a pregnant protagonist, Haroun centres the plot around Amina. Souleymane (a non-professional whose only other movie credit is in Haroun’s 2013 Grigris) plays Amina with quiet steeliness, first as a low-paid worker who strips tyres for scrap metal in sweltering heat, then as the desperate mother raising finances for Maria’s amateur abortion – to be secretly performed in a nurse’s house, not a hospital. “You can pay for it, but sometimes it ends in death. And if the woman dies, no one can talk about it.”

“In Chad, in our 100 or more local languages, we don’t have a word for ‘rape’. It could happen, but no one can talk about it” – Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Opting for serene simplicity, Haroun captures Chad’s cinematic essence, from the expressiveness of the women’s clothes, to the evocative, naturally lit backdrop of Amina’s meditative walks. “My mise-en-scène was to show how tenderness can be a force against violence,” Haroun says. “That’s why the film is quiet, and not a ‘performance’ film like in Hollywood movies. I wanted to shoot a silent revolution, something happening without screaming. They want to change it for eternity. It’s not just a daily problem, it’s an eternal problem.”

In Chad, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds sparked public discussions about women’s rights and their experiences, while Haroun’s received responses of gratitude, both online and in the streets when he visits. Inspired by the drama, an organisation was formed to campaign for legalised abortions; Souleymane was asked, and accepted, to be their spokeswoman. “I’m really happy about the film’s resonance in Chad,” Haroun says. “Young people in Chad are like young people everywhere. They have sex. They start at 15. And sometimes there’s rape… It’s important people have the opportunity to talk about it.”

When Haroun was Chad’s Minister of Culture in 2018, he vowed to establish film schools across the country. They have yet to materialise and Haroun fears that Chad’s young directors “didn’t learn cinema, so their films don’t travel”. He adds, “I need young people coming. If not, I could die tomorrow, and it’s the end of the story. I didn’t ask for it, but it’s my duty to have young people by my side, making films. It’s important to have several points of view from Chad by several filmmakers.”

However, Chad only has one physical cinema for its population of 16 million. During the civil war, the theatre was destroyed and its remnants were depicted by Haroun in 1999’s Bye Bye Africa. “When I got the Jury Prize at Cannes (for 2010’s A Screaming Man), the government were so proud. They said, ‘We need a cinema in Chad.’ So they renovated the theatre. It opened in 2011. But it’s closed now because of COVID.”

Haroun has two future films in mind, one in France, one in Chad, but his other duties weigh heavily on his mind. Not only does he wish for the country’s sole cinema to reopen, the non-existent film schools remain a pressing concern. As Chad’s only prominent filmmaker, he’s bombarded by Chadian people whose issues, they believe, deserve the big-screen Lingui treatment. “There are too many things to do,” he laments. “I feel a bit alone and isolated. The only thing I can do is tell stories about my people. I would like to do all these things but I only have one life. I do what I can.”

Lingui, the Sacred Bonds opens in UK cinemas on February 4