Reel Reviews | Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (TIFF ’21)

by David Ehrlich | IndieWire

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s slender yet riveting “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” is a story about a woman trying to secure an abortion for her 15-year-old daughter in a country where terminating a pregnancy violates both national and religious laws, but — as its title suggests in two different languages — this soft hammer of a social drama is less concerned with the cruelties of Chad’s politics than it is with how people help each other to endure them together.

“Lingui” is a Chadian term that represents a tradition of altruism; a collective resilience in the face of catastrophic ordeals. When a group of young men wordlessly pull the teenage Maria (Rihane Khalil-Alio) out from a riverbed after she tries to drown herself, that is lingui. When Maria’s mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Soulymane) agrees to aid her estranged sister at a moment of irrevocable crisis, that is lingui. When Maria’s school, afraid of how gossip might reflect on them, expels the girl the minute they learn of her delicate condition… that is why lingui is so necessary.

And that is hardly the most pressing reason, as there are more predatory forces afoot — many of them in the guise of helpers, and virtually all of them male. As it stands, Amina and Maria are not exactly helpless on their own. Only thirty-something-years-old but worn down from the shunning that she once endured as a child herself, Amina lives with her daughter on the outskirts of N’djamena provides for them both by selling wire stoves that she makes by hacking out the metal from discarded car tires with a machete (a brutal process that Haroun’s steady camera sees for all of its hardship). It’s not enough to afford a clandestine abortion, which costs roughly 1,000 USD, but it’s enough not to exist at someone else’s mercy.

When she isn’t working, Amina is busy deflecting marriage offers from her gray-haired neighbor Brahim (Youssouf Djaoro) and being reassured by her local imam that “anyone with a problem can call on his help.” We understand why Amina might doubt that; seeing Amina forced to pray on a patch of dirt outside of the mosque doesn’t inspire confidence that her ultra-conservative religious community ever has a woman’s best interests at heart. This is a modern world in the grip of ancient struggles, and while Amina and Maria are connected to the 21st century through the earbuds of their iPods, Haroun’s unsentimental gaze suggests a kind of folkloric timelessness.

That timelessness is expressed in ways both sublime (the vibrant outfits that pop against the dusty streets) and tragic (internalized misogyny, handed down through the generations like a family heirloom). Maria knows that people think of any single mom as “a loose woman,” and she’d rather die than follow in her mother’s loving footsteps. It’s why she pushes Amina away, turns only to her giant teddy bear for solace, and refuses to identify the man who impregnated her. That mystery remains unexplored for most of the movie’s running time, as Haroun focuses instead on the hard labor of finding help, and the logistics of the sisterhood that provide it.

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