Pippa Sterk finds the Chadian drama rich in its exploration of family and body politics

CN: sexual violence, attempted suicide, FGM

“You’re all I have, Mamita.”

Lingui, directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, is a Chadian drama centred around Amina (Achouackh Abakar) and her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), also called by her nickname Mamita.

Amina makes portable stoves from wire, which she cuts out of discarded tyres. In the opening sequence we see her everyday work, trying to sell the stoves to various potential buyers. It is a thankless and unstable job, but she seems to get by, making enough money to provide food for the two of them and put Maria through school.

All of this is thrown into chaos when it is revealed that Maria is pregnant. Initially, Amina reacts with anger; having gone through an unmarried, teen pregnancy herself, Amina is aware of the social and professional stigma it brings with it – her family rejected her and her peers still pity her. A local friend from the mosque makes Maria an offer for marriage to allow her to live without the scorn of others.

It’s evident from the start that this social attitude has not been resolved in a generation; Amina only finds out about the pregnancy because Maria’s headteacher has decided to expel her. A teen pregnancy would reflect badly on the school. In a country that has some of the lowest literacy rates in the world (hovering at just under a quarter of the population), the implications of a girl losing her education are dire.

Lingui manages to delicately interweave a host of topics: the mother-daughter relation, autonomy and consent, generational trauma and healing, and educational and religious doctrine

In the face of her mother’s initial anger, Maria continues to assert her autonomy. She insists on having an abortion, despite this being illegal in Chad, and despite her mother’s objections on religious grounds. Eventually, Amina concedes that Maria can’t carry a child that she does not want and tries to help her get an abortion. However, this proves difficult, as they need to raise a large amount of money, find a doctor willing to perform the procedure, and also hope that there are no medical complications.

For a relatively short film – its runtime is just under 90 minutes – Lingui manages to delicately interweave a host of topics: the mother-daughter relation, autonomy and consent, generational trauma and healing, and educational and religious doctrine. All these issues are dealt with in great depth. The restrictions placed on both Amina and Maria, simply because of their social position, become evident through this exploration. Yet the film is never hopeless, and never tries to shock the audience with overtly graphic depictions of violence, sexual or otherwise. The ‘sacred bonds’, the English translation of the film’s title, are expressed in wordless acts of everyday charity that don’t demand reciprocation.

On the whole, the film seems to take these sacred bonds as a guiding path for ways of building a better future

For instance, when it seems like the chances of getting an abortion are getting smaller and smaller, Maria tries to drown herself in a nearby river. A group of men sees her go under, silently drag her out of the water and resuscitate her. They drive her back to Amina. When she tries to pay the men for their kindness, they refuse to take any of her money, insisting that they were only doing what was right.

On the whole, the film seems to take these sacred bonds as a guiding path for ways of building a better future. This is expressed particularly in the bonds between women, not least in Amina who foregoes her religious beliefs to help Maria terminate her pregnancy, but also in the doctor (Hadjé Fatimé Ngoua) who agrees to perform Maria’s abortion, again refusing to take payment. She argues that she couldn’t take payment from Amina, because: “We are like sisters now.”

The most obvious exploration of a sacred familial bond is in one of the last scenes. Fanta (Briya Gomdigue), Amina’s sister, had initially rejected Amina when she fell pregnant. However, as Fanta realises that her husband wants to have their daughter circumcised, she comes to Amina for help, after years of refusing contact. Amina is initially angry that she is only seen as a source of help, when she herself was not helped in her time of need. However, this anger quickly fades and she agrees to bring her niece to the same doctor as Maria since she performs fake circumcisions too.

When Amina’s niece comes out of her supposed circumcision, the spectacle that greets her makes a mockery of the assumption of male omniscience. Fanta’s husband dressed in his finest clothing, cheering among a group of chanting women, throwing money at them, celebrating his daughter’s circumcision in a way that makes it obvious that this event is for his, not her, wellbeing. Of course, as an audience, we know that no circumcision has taken place at all. In a perfect take on the emperor’s new clothes, we are invited not just to laugh at the fact that Amina’s brother-in-law is being deceived, but also that he is so incredibly obnoxious about it all.

The film leaves us on a note that completely subverts the emotional power established at the beginning of the film: it isn’t the women that should be pitied, but those who hold onto doctrine, because they will eventually find themselves mocked, left behind, outdated and with no sacred bonds to fall back on.

Lingui had its UK premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, with a release date scheduled for early next year.


Images courtesy of LFF.
Image description:
1. Amina and Maria lean on a windowsill. Amina looks away from Maria, her face troubled. Maria reaches out by putting her hand on Amina’s shoulder.
2. Amina kisses Maria on the forehead against a bright yellow wall.