After making a festival run in 2021, including being selected as the Chadian entry for last year’s Academy Awards, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s engrossing and often stunning family drama Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (2021) arrives at MIFF with acclaim. The film is slight, coming in at just 87 minutes, but is always deeply engaging.
We begin with a dedicated Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a single mother crafting intricate stoves out of the wiring in car tyres to support herself and her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) in the Chadian city of N’Djamena. The sequence is shot beautifully, as most scenes are by cinematographer Mathieu Giombini, focusing on Amina’s breathing and her drive to support her family.
What Amina does not yet know is she will have to do much more to support Maria, who she is soon to learn is pregnant, and wants an abortion. We learn of this with Amina through a meeting with Maria’s school principal, who informs her she has been expelled because of her pregnancy, stating that it’s “bad for our image.” This explanation is heartbreaking to hear, especially from a woman similar in age to Amina.
What follows is a gripping confrontation between mother and daughter in one of the most extraordinary framed and blocked sequences of the film that is truly stunning. There is a certain grace Haroun is deliberately pairing with the harshness of this confrontation and circumstance that is where the film truly clicks into place and becomes quite special.
I hesitate to call this an abortion drama, as the film is much more focused on the mother-daughter and the bonds they hold as the navigate their city, religion, and their perception. While similar subject matter has been shown with a clinical harshness to harness the stark reality in films like Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (2020) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Haroun instead centres this story on the community of women that have to support one another in this city.
The beauty in the film comes from seeing these two women grow in front of our eyes, a remarkable achievement in character work in such a slender film. The pair of performances from Souleymane and Alio are quite special. They are able to embody the quiet, seething rage necessary, as well as the desperation the story requires. Many of these stories can be guilty of wallowing in despair and misery of the characters’ situation, something Haroun is able to navigate around remarkably. Lingui is always focused on its namesake, the bonds between the women of the film, rather than the situation they are in.
There is a remarkable level of restraint that only heightens the dramatic tension scene to scene. Haroun avoids any clean outs in the story, so even with its slender frame, Lingui never feels predictable or dishonest. It is slow to unfold, but once it does you will be struck by its elegance and beauty. The performances and frame widen and lighten that makes the restrained opening worthwhile. If the beginning of the film is a tight series of hyperventilating inhales, the final act feels more like a relieving exhale.
There is a maternal warmth that emanates throughout the film’s female characters, illuminating the necessary bonds these women have with each other in the city that is truly powerful. Depictions of this are so fleeting in film, especially by a male filmmaker, that makes the film so captivating and fresh. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds move slowly on its course, but once the end of the tunnel is in sight, you will be astounded by how much it affects you.