The dilemma of a poor 15-year-old girl seeking an abortion in an Islamic African country where the practice is both taboo and illegal is dramatized with understated compassion in Lingui, The Sacred Bonds.
Veteran Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun lays out the tale in a steady manner that maintains an appealing natural rhythm rather than an imposed melodramatic one. The topicality of this Cannes Film Festival competition entry should help it navigate to receptive specialized venues internationally.
The first thing Lingui has going for it is that it tells a story you’ve very likely never seen before. Set in a colorful, dusty district outside the city of N’djamena, the tale centers on Anima (Achouackh Abakar Souleyman) and her daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), with the mom squeaking by making baskets while her daughter attends an Islamic-based girls’ school.
When the truth of Maria’s situation becomes known, she makes it clear that she does not want to keep the baby. But despite a very bland generalized offer of comfort and support from the local imam, the opposition she faces is absolute in a community where all official power is held by men.
From here on, the visible routines and rhythms of daily life are blended with the sub rosa efforts to find a solution to Maria’s life-altering predicament. She is summarily expelled from school but becomes more resolute as a result. While there are quasi-melodramatic moments, the merits of the film are mostly to be found in the way the director organically searches for and then quietly serves up plausible resolutions.
The gentle nature of the film stands in stark contrast to the fierce passions, combative legalese and issue-driven melodrama that marks most stories involving abortion rights, so it’s both disarming and refreshing to encounter a change-of-pace coming from a relatively unlikely source.