Anahit Behrooz


Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: ‘How would the female body exist without the pressure of patriarchy?’

The legendary Chadian director speaks candidly about reproductive rights in his home country and supporting the next generation of filmmakers.

As the first feature filmmaker from his homeland of Chad and the first Chadian director to compete and win prizes at Venice and Cannes, Mahamet-Saleh Haroun is no stranger to breaking new ground. His most recent film Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is the latest in a long line of the writer/director’s pioneering tradition, turning to women protagonists for the first time in Haroun’s six-feature back catalogue and grappling with the thorny – and illegal – question of abortion in contemporary Chad. This is untrodden territory for both Haroun and the film landscape more broadly, but the unknown is – in a way – Haroun’s comfort zone.

Lingui may be the director’s first film to centre female characters, but the plight of women struggling against Chad’s rigid and unforgiving reproductive laws has been at the forefront of Haroun’s mind for years. “I was reading a newspaper article about a new-born baby who had been killed and thrown in the garbage,” Haroun remembers. “Two weeks later, the same subject appeared again. It was commonplace: every two weeks, three weeks, one month. It reminded me of [an incident] when I was a child, when we found a new-born in the public toilets. He had been killed and I was really traumatised. And so several decades later, when I read this article, I said to myself: ‘Well, the tragedy is continuing. So maybe I have to do something’.”

The result is an intimately told tale of female resilience and struggle: Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a hard working mother and practising Muslim, is horrified when she discovers her 15-year-old daughter Marie (Rihane Khalil Alio) is pregnant – not least because she herself was an unwed, teenage mother – but pushes aside her moral and legal quandaries to procure Marie the abortion she so desperately wants. Shot using non-professional actors in Chad, Haroun’s naturalistic approach lends the film an evocative, heady physicality: sweat drips down faces and feet slap against the hard ground as these women work for and run after and hold each other, the fact of their bodies inescapable and entirely their own.

“It’s a question of the body – the female body – in these spaces,” Haroun says. “How would it exist without the pressure of the patriarchy and its power? Traditional beliefs, political power, religion: women have to struggle against all these fronts.” In one subplot, Amina’s small niece is on the cusp of being circumcised (“The patriarchy wants to make the female body property: I wanted to show that it starts from the beginning, from when they are just children,” Haroun explains); elsewhere Amina is told to cover up by her imam while in her own home.

Yet for all its latent violence, the patriarchy in Lingui is framed first and foremost through female resistance, through the eponymous ‘lingui’ – a Chadian word meaning irrefutable bonds – that create networks of fierce solidarity between women. Amina helps her sister find a women who does fake circumcisions; Marie embraces her mother as they watch the scolding imam leave. “If you consider life like a theatre, the main characters are men but they are empty,” Haroun says. “The power, the real power, those who manage the education of children and deal with daily problems, are women. I think that women – because of these experiences – understand each other immediately, they share the same destiny. And so this solidarity is a natural thing.”

And, stresses Haroun, these connections stretch far beyond Chad. “In Argentina, in Salvador, for example, you have really horrible situations for women. I wanted Lingui to show these women – in Latin America, in Eastern Europe – that they are not alone. Cinema is also [about] learning to build links.”

For Haroun, then, cinema is its own form of sacred bond, and one that he wants to build both internationally and within his homeland. A pioneer in Chad with an impressive global reputation, he is nevertheless very aware he is the only Chadian director actively working. “The fact is we don’t have an industry. The people who work with me don’t only work in cinema; for three years, they are doing something else and then I call them and they take two months off for my film. I’ve built this family around me, and now my duty is to find young filmmakers from this family, to let you see films from Chad by other filmmakers.”

It comes down to a question of legacy, but in perhaps the least egotistical sense that could be suggested by the word. “If I don’t have a legacy, it’s like I don’t exist,” Haroun says simply. “I could exist if I have a legacy. If not, all my work is failed. I find myself alone as a filmmaker in Chad. And so it’s my duty to have a legacy, I have to think about it.”

Top of Haroun’s hopes is a film school in Chad, and greater economic funding for the local film industry. But until that happens, his films are building a specific legacy of their own. Released only last year, Lingui has already made enormous waves across the country, screened by pro-choice groups and used to spark renewed conversation in the struggle for reproductive rights. “When the Minister of Culture [of Chad] saw the film for the first time she said: ‘This is our story. And all the woman here in the cinema know that this is our story. And every one of us has faced this’. They know that it’s not fair and they are ready to struggle for change. And I’m really happy that the film became a kind of opportunity.” He smiles. “Like a window you open and then you have fresh air coming in.”

Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is released 4 February via MUBI. Read the LWLies Recommends review.

Published 31 Jan 2022

Tags: Lingui, The Sacred Bonds Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

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