The Chadian word “lingui” denotes the invisible social ties that sustain communities of people, especially if they’re connected by a common unifying trait. In Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s film Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, this alliance is forged through the strife and solidarity intrinsic to womanhood. Though much of the Chadian-born, France-residing director’s work has focused on the lives of outsiders and underdogs, Lingui is his most feminine-forward film to date—perhaps save for his acclaimed 1994 breakthrough short film Maral Tanié, which chronicles a teenage girl forced by her family to marry a man in his 50s, a union which she refuses to consummate. Similarly in Lingui, a teenage girl named Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) finds herself maligned by patriarchal society when she discovers she’s pregnant with a child she has no intention of raising. Fortunately, her single mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) understands what it feels like to be shunned for carrying a child out of wedlock, and begins a quest with Maria to secure an abortion—despite the legal and societal ramifications that threaten them if their plot is exposed.
Taking place on the periphery of the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, the material circumstances of Maria’s life are immediately altered once word of her pregnancy gets out. She is dismissed from school due to officials fearing that their institution’s reputation would be tarnished if they allowed her to continue enrolling while pregnant. The imam of their local mosque begins lingering around their household, demanding that the two women show up for prayer more regularly. Maria’s peers begin to probe into the details of her personal life, insinuating disapproval toward the rumor of her pregnancy. Even Amina is hysterical when she first hears the news, going so far as to come to blows with her daughter when she first expresses her intention to have an abortion (particularly due to their religion). Though these initial condemnatory attitudes toward Maria’s pregnancy are devastating to the 15-year-old, Amina almost instantly comes around to support her daughter after they share a frank conversation.
“I don’t want to be like you, mom,” says Maria. “Everyone thinks you’re a loose woman. No one respects you. I don’t want that life.” Though this remark seems disparaging, it’s merely a reflection of the very real sentiments harbored toward unmarried mothers in Chadian society. Amina was banished by her family due to her own pregnancy at age 15, and with her daughter’s struggles reflecting those of her own, she becomes determined to work any and all connections she has to ensure her daughter’s life isn’t negatively affected by the same social stigmas she’s suffered from.
However, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds never utilizes feminine trauma, pain and marginalization in a way that feels exploitative. In fact, there is little desire on Haroun’s part to linger on bleak platitudes for the sake of making his point on the fraught reality of womanhood. The film is instead singularly focused on the various—and often discreet—ways that women rebel against the status quo. The silent and subdued nature of such actions are simply a way of preserving these illicit channels which preserve some semblance of female independence. This is particularly true of the women who perform clandestine abortions in their own homes, though it’s also made clear that the precarious nature of these procedures is but another disquieting risk when asserting female bodily autonomy.
Yet, what is so refreshing about Lingui’s exploration of feminine hardship is the way it almost completely decentralizes men from the narrative. Though they certainly perpetrate harm against Amina, Maria and countless other women tangentially involved in the story, their misogynistic deeds and leanings are never given a platform. The men in this film are either relegated to the background or employed as embodiments of patriarchal power and subjugation. This female-focused framework further solidifies the theme of women banding together in order to support and protect each other—despite past grievances, financial shortcomings and the looming threat of exposure. There is only one notable scene that involves a group of men coming to Maria’s aid, who surprisingly also refuse Amina’s monetary token of gratitude. This is likely Haroun’s way of proclaiming that not all men ascribe to the overarching sexist notions that women merely exist for male provision; men can surely uphold lingui outside of stark gender biases.
The visual splendor of the film is what anchors it in a realm of optimistic rebellion as opposed to depressing observation. Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini (Haroun’s frequent collaborator and allegedly the only white European on the shoot) captures the exquisite beauty of the characters’ every mundane action and intentional idling—whether depicting the strenuous process of Amina fashioning kanoun stoves out of rubber tires to sell in town or the pensive stillness of Maria looking out over the confluence of the Chari and Logone rivers. The effervescent glow of sunlight imbues each shot with a sense of buoyancy that feels apt for conveying the warmth with which these women embrace one another, a constant beacon of hope for sisters in need.
Gorgeously realized and bolstered by amazing performances by Souleymane and Alio, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is a prescient portrait of what tribulations afflict—or await—women who are barred from receiving comprehensive reproductive care. Clearly, the tandem legislative and societal injustices imposed by restricting this access are incredibly heinous. However, no matter what regulations are enacted against a woman’s right to choose, there will surely be an enduring, sacred bond that continues to foster solidarity and sisterhood in the name of preserving the ability to shape the circumstances of our own futures. The merits of mutual aid are inherent to the notion of lingui, after all.
Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Writer: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Stars: Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Rihane Khalil Alio, Youssouf Djaoro, Briya Gomdigue, Hadjé Fatimé Ngoua
Release Date: February 4, 2022
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan