As Chad’s most lauded auteur, the director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun remains committed to portraying his sub-Saharan African homeland onscreen. Early in his career he focused on the fallout from the nation’s multiple civil wars, which forced him to migrate to France in the 1980s. But in the aftermath of the conflict that concluded in 2010, he has shifted his attention to other social ills.
With his newest drama, “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds,” which debuted at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and reached American theaters on Friday, he takes on the topic of abortion through the plight of a Muslim woman, Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), who is helping her teenage daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), terminate her pregnancy after a sexual assault. The film has received rave reviews, with The Times’s Manohla Dargis making it a Critic’s Pick.
While abortion is in theory legal in Chad under strict circumstances, the stigma (often associated with religious beliefs) and restrictions around it push some to resort to clandestine clinics or, worse, to carry to term and then kill the newborn.
In a joint interview, Haroun, speaking from Paris, and Abakar Souleymane, in N’Djamena, Chad, shared more on the relevance of their second film collaboration. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why did you want to make this film at this moment in Chad?
MAHAMAT-SALEH HAROUN I read an article about a newborn child discovered in the garbage, and all these situations of unwanted pregnancies. But I was first really traumatized by the same subject when I was a child. I was 7 or 8, and we found a baby in the garbage. Several decades later when I read this article, I said, “That’s not normal. I have to do something.” I started investigating, asking nurses, and I discovered that it was a huge problem women are facing every day, because the fact is that in Chad, in our local languages, the word “rape” doesn’t exist. We know that rape exists, a lot of women are victims of it, but there is no word to express it. It’s always as if it’s the women’s fault, like they are guilty because they are pregnant. Sometimes they deny the pregnancy or sometimes, when they discover it’s too late to even think of an abortion, they keep it secret until they have the kid and then they kill it because they don’t have any solutions. I had to tell that story from a Chadian point of view in a human way that resonates with the same problems in the United States, in Argentina, in El Salvador, and in other countries in Africa.
ACHOUACKH ABAKAR SOULEYMANE It’s horrible because if you’re not married and you are pregnant, you cannot talk about it. Sometimes these young women are just on their own. If you’re raped, you don’t talk about it, you just deal with it. As a woman, as a single mom, I was happy to be that person that can show it to the whole country and tell women that if this happened in your life, it’s happening to a lot of other women, and you can do something about it.
Did you or the film face any pushback from government officials or religious groups?
HAROUN When we were in Cannes, people said a lot of things against the film on social media, but they hadn’t seen it. But then when we showed the film in Chad, no one said anything because it’s just the reality. We even have some support from the government. I remember the Ministry of Culture was very happy and we had also a state minister at the screening. He called my assistant the day after and said he wanted to organize his own screening for the whole government because he thought that the film should be shown to all those people who don’t know a lot about this subject. I refused because you never know with politics; sometimes you are manipulated. But it was really well received and even for Achouackh, who being in Chad you might think she could be a victim of hate, she has only received congratulations.
ABAKAR SOULEYMANE People would come up to me and say, “You are so brave for being able to do that.” That was shocking.
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Haroun, you remain the only feature director in Chad with international visibility. In terms of logistics does it continue to be as difficult to produce film in the country as when you started out?
HAROUN It’s very difficult to shoot in Chad because we don’t have a real industry. We don’t have real technicians. All the people who work with me in Chad have other jobs, and then when I shoot they come back. We also don’t have professional actors. Sometimes the pressure of society is so strong that you cannot find women who accept to be naked or to kiss someone in a film. When I was looking for the actor for the role of Amina, I met a 40-year-old single mother. I said, “Do you want to act in my film?” And she said, “I’m very interested but I first have to ask my uncles.” In our society, the uncles on your mother’s side have to take care of you. So I said, “If you are not free to make it, forget about it.” This is the situation. Then, of course, we don’t have financing there. I’m always looking for money everywhere, and then go back to Chad to make a film because it’s a duty for me. It’s a responsibility. I’m the only active filmmaker there and if I stop making films in Chad, the world will be missing images from my country.
Achouackh, what was your path into “Lingui” and into acting in general?
ABAKAR SOULEYMANE I’m an entrepreneur, so I have a restaurant. After high school I studied journalism and now I’m learning sociology. I do a lot of things, but I always wanted to act. I left Chad when I was, like, 17, worked in fashion in California, and I came back 13 years later. I met Haroun in 2012 when he was prepping for “GriGris” [his 2013 drama]. I was assistant costume, and then I got to have a little role in it. I hoped the next time around I could have a bigger part, but I never thought I could have the main role in a movie. I watch a lot of movies, and it was a dream, but I’m a Chadian woman, and I know that in Chad this is not something that you do, so I didn’t really try to pursue it and then it happened. I was almost 40, so I thought, “It’s now or never.”
Could you elaborate on the meaning of the “lingui,” a Chadian concept referring to this unspoken union between people, which in the film seems to concern women specifically?
HAROUN Lingui is a precept for living together. It concerns everybody in society and it starts with your neighbors. It’s based on tenderness between everyone in the community to resist violence. This mother and daughter only have this love with all the other women. They share the same experiences with their bodies — of being pregnant — and this lets them understand that they belong to the same community and they have the same destiny, so they have to help each other. The lingui is not dead among women, but men, because of power, they forget about it.
ABAKAR SOULEYMANE In Chadian society, when there is an issue women only have each other, because there are things that you can’t share with the men. Women have got each other’s backs here and that is powerful.