Most of the films made over the last two decades by the Chadian writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Dry Season, Grigris) are built of careful, quiet images, often of bold colours, and tell of struggles on the poverty line in N’Djamena, his country’s capital on the borders of the Sahara. Haroun’s latest is no different, but the very specific and new focus in Lingui (which translates as ‘sacred bonds’) is on women fighting to survive in a world that is very clearly run by men – and often run corruptly or at least with little vision beyond the end of those men’s noses. It’s a simple, angry work, determined to get across its point with force and with few distractions.
Lingui gives us a single mother, Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), and her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), who make ends meet by stripping old tyres of their inner wires and sculpting them into stoves which they sell on the streets for around 2000 local francs each (a bit less than $4). Maria’s unsettled behaviour catches her mother’s eye, and it doesn’t take long for her mother’s instinct and a few inquiries to reveal that she’s pregnant and has been expelled by her school. Such pregnancies are, in the words of the headmistress, ‘bad for our image’.
Maria doesn’t want the child, yet abortion is outlawed. The mother’s fear for her daughter is only heightened by her memory of being abandoned by her own immediate family for exactly the same reasons. Amina is determined to avoid the same for her daughter. Yet at every turn there are men with questionable intentions: an Imam with little compassion; a doctor who will charge a million francs for an illegal operation; and later a relative who insists on his own young daughter being circumcised because of the social status it will win him. An ageing neighbour is keen to marry and look after Amina, but it’s not certain his intentions are as kind as they first appear.
Some of the storytelling here is disconcertingly straightforward – so boiled down as to feel simplistic at times. For Haroun, clarity is clearly king. The film feels more powerful in the moments when it spotlights and celebrates female collaboration, insisting on it in a world that’s built and run so heavily in favour of men. A slow, silent zoom towards the faces of mother and daughter after the admonishing Imam leaves the scene speaks volumes. There are also moments of high tension that stress what’s at stake for these women: Maria running down the middle of a busy boulevard, or mum and daughter caught in a maze of back alleys after a violent confrontation.
If it sounds austere, that’s only half the picture. The seriousness of the threats against these women are offset by several moments of pure joy and togetherness between the mother and daughter, and between them and two other women who come to their aid. A mood of grim inevitability morphs into a celebration of the art of the possible via solidarity and compassion.
In UK cinemas Feb 4, 2022.