When we first meet Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), she’s hunched over a pile of discarded tires in the courtyard of her modest house. Sweat beads on her brow as she effortfully slices into the dust-caked rubber with a utility knife and rips out the thin steel cords. The reason for this mysterious labor is soon made apparent: She expertly weaves the resulting wire onto metal frames, creating lightweight, portable charcoal stoves. She then peddles these upcycled appliances on the streets of her native city of N’Djamena, Chad. It's not much, but it’s honest, steady work for a single mother, and it keeps her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), fed, clothed, and enrolled in her girls’ school.
Writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun presents these early scenes of Lingui, The Sacred Bonds in an almost neorealist style. He emphasizes the tactile details of Amina’s routine and immerses the viewer in the colors and rhythms of Chadian city life. This is a landscape of yellows and greens: the ubiquitous, jasmine-hued dust and clay, and the bright emerald foliage of the low trees. The film’s vividly garbed characters pop against this backdrop, particularly Amina, who consistently draws the eye with her flowing wraps of blue, purple, and orange. Meanwhile, cinematographer Mathieu Giomini skillfully captures N’Djamena’s striking light, from the jaundiced haze kicked up by dozens of roaring motorbikes to the blue-black gloom of its deserted nocturnal streets.
This unpretentious visual richness and the absence of any score or soundtrack might lead the viewer to expect a kitchen-sink drama about an independent woman’s daily travails in contemporary north-central Africa. To an extent, Lingui, The Sacred Bonds is indeed that film, one that regards Amina’s circumstances with earnest sympathy but also hard-edged realism. Abandoned by her child’s father and shunned by her family, Amina is regarded as a third-class person in her patriarchal, Muslim community. She is obliged to pray on a patch of dirt outside her local mosque, and the imam patronizingly scolds her for her perceived religious lapses. Her older neighbor Brahim (Haroun regular Youssouf Djaoro) clumsily floats a marriage offer, harshly (but not inaccurately) observing that, as a “loose woman,” her prospects are slim.
However, Haroun’s stories have a habit of taking nasty detours, introducing noir-adjacent plot swerves and heightening their social realism with perils both moral and mortal. Lingui is no exception. Her suspicions aroused by her daughter’s sudden bout of sullenness, Amina discovers that Maria is pregnant – and what's more, she's been expelled from school for this alleged sin, as if her shame might infect the other girls. Given that she made similar, life-altering mistakes in her youth, Amina’s first reaction is one of internalized misogyny. She furiously slaps Maria around and berates her with familiar parental rhetoric: How could you be so stupid? Eventually, however, the tempers of both mother and daughter cool, their mutual resolve solidifies, and a perilous plan begins to coalesce. When abortion is both criminally outlawed and religiously forbidden, how does one safely and secretly end a pregnancy? Women, it turns out, will find a way to “take care of it” – just as they have for thousands of years.
The Chadian Haroun now lives and works in France, but almost all his films are set in the nation of his birth. His searing feature A Screaming Man (2010) – also starring Djaoro – nabbed the Jury Prize at Cannes and exposed his post-colonial, Nouvelle Vague-influenced work to a wider international audience. Haroun’s films tend to focus on ethically and existentially compromised male characters, and Lingui is therefore something of a departure for the writer-director. Not only is his latest feature a firmly woman-centered story, but Amina is an atypical Haroun protagonist. She evinces a quiet self-assurance and an iron determination to do whatever must be done to protect her daughter’s future.
When Maria first raises the possibility of abortion, Amina breaks into sobs, “You know we can’t do that!” Quickly, however, her anguish hardens into clear-eyed purpose. She quietly speaks with doctors, nurses, and midwives to inquire about logistics and costs. One million Central African francs is the price tag, about $1,600 U.S., an unthinkable sum. However, when Amina looks at her little girl – sad, strong, and statuesque, already a head taller than her mother – the unthinkable easily becomes thinkable. She throws herself into salvaging tires and weaving stoves, sells every possession that can be sold, and swallows her pride to exploit Brahim’s romantic interest.
Haroun threads a tricky needle in Lingui. He sharply conveys the hostility of the man’s world that Amina and Maria are obliged to navigate: the dearth of support from their blood relatives, the looming presence of the meddlesome imam, and the threat of a nighttime visit from civil authorities (or local vigilantes). There are subtler touches as well, such as the way that the muezzin’s call to prayer drifts into the soundtrack whenever Amina is feeling hemmed in by religious authority. Late in the film, a twilight chase through the maze of narrow streets in Amina’s neighborhood takes on an almost expressionist quality, as though she and Maria were scrambling through a nightmare, evading monstrous male tormentors. (The film does present a few men of integrity, such as the dreadlocked Good Samaritan who saves Maria from drowning and then refuses any reward.) Not all the director’s stylistic choices are successful, however. His frequent use of jarring cuts is a mixed bag: When they work, the film’s elisions can be dramatically impactful; when they don’t, the result is unintentional confusion.
Crucially, however, Haroun doesn’t permit his unblinking depiction of Chadian women’s tribulations to drag the film into miserablism. Lingui is not ultimately a story about misogynistic oppression, but rather an awed portrait of female strength. The director portrays a remarkable whisper network of medical professionals and traditional healers who help women procure abortions and other necessary services. At one point, a cottage industry in phony female genital mutilation (FGM) – performed by cunning female surgeons to preserve girls’ integrity and hoodwink domineering fathers – becomes a significant plot point. Haroun makes space for female joy, too, as in a scene where Amina tearfully reunites with her estranged sister, or a lingering sequence in which mother and daughter dance dreamily to a pop tune, performing just for themselves and whichever God watches over girls in trouble. For this reason, Lingui emerges as perhaps the warmest and most affirming film that Haroun has made to date, a tale of guile and endurance in a cruel, imperfect world.
Lingui, The Sacred Bonds is now available to stream from MUBI.