Twenty-eight years ago, Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun directed his second short film “Maral Tanié.” It’s about a 17-year-old girl who refuses her family’s decision to be married off to a guy in his 50s. It was the first of many pieces of cinema Haroun has done about Chadian people — both male and female — who rebel against or escape from their homeland’s systemic cultural oppression. 

That’s something to keep in mind while watching Haroun’s latest film, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, the Chadian entry for this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar category. Some might find it a bit surprising that this uplifting story of African female solidarity was written and directed by a man. But don’t forget that Africa is a continent that gave us sympathetic filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène and Haile Gerima, men who weren’t afraid to show how much sistas are struggling out there, whether in Africa or elsewhere.

The sistas who are struggling in Lingui are Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) and her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio). Living on the outskirts of N’Djamena, Amina tries to make a living stripping the metal wire out of tires and making and selling kanoun stoves, which she often carries on her head. Amina hustles even more when she learns that her daughter is pregnant and wants an abortion — which is considered an abominable thing among her people. Unlike Amina, it won’t take long for viewers to realize that her daughter is a victim of rape. After Maria attempts suicide, Amina tries to rustle up enough money (a million Central African francs) to pay for an on-the-low abortion. At one cringey, clumsy point, she even tries to sell her body to a guy whose marriage proposal she turned down.

As sad and bleak as this story starts off, Lingui (which is Chadian for “bond” or “connection”) is a film that, as it goes along, blossoms with hope and inspiration. As Maria demands control of her body, this inspires Amina — long seen as a pariah in her community for being a single mom — to break out of her own cultural shackles. Her journey has her meeting other sistas in the struggle, women who perform secret abortions or fake female "circumcisions" to prevent actual female genital mutilation. She even reconnects with her estranged sister, who comes to her with a serious issue involving Amina’s niece.

This may sound strange, but Lingui almost feels like a heist film. Haroun has a bunch of female Chadian characters working together on the DL to keep men away from their bodies — and it’s glorious watching them succeed. A quick scene with Amina and her sister giggling in a car, after pulling a fast one on her sister’s husband, might make you wanna giggle as well.

While Haroun isn’t out to condemn all Chadian men, he does efficiently show how the patriarchy threatens the women in his country. The most telling scene is when a group of young gents carry Maria out of the water after her attempted suicide. When she comes to, all she sees from her perspective are sweaty, panting men.

Like many contemporary African filmmakers, Haroun tells Lingui in a naturalistic, neorealistic fashion. And yet, even though it’s set in one of the poorest countries on the planet, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is ultimately optimistic, basically championing the strength women can achieve together. 

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