It’s been eight years since director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun was last in the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition lineup with his 2013 drama “Grisgris,” and it’s no surprise that the filmmaker from Chad, in Central Africa, is back this year with “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” — after all, the director has been in the Cannes lineup five times, and he won the jury prize for “A Screaming Man” in 2010.
But here’s what is surprising, and dismaying: In the six festivals between “Grisgris” and “Lingui,” Cannes’ main competition has included a grand total of three African films: “Timbuktu” in 2014, “Yomeddine” in 2018 and “Atlantics” in 2019. (By contrast, there are 14 European films in this year’s competition alone.) Others have screened in various sidebars and out of competition, but for the past decade, Cannes’ marquee section has been almost entirely devoid of work from Africa.
While Haroun shouldn’t have to carry the load on the Croisette for an entire continent, he is an exemplary filmmaker whole work always warrants a high-profile showcase. In a career that includes “A Screaming Man,” “Grisgris” and the documentary “Hissein Habre, A Chadian Tragedy,” which had a special Cannes screening in 2016, “Lingui” is one of the subtlest and most low-key entries; it’s driven by anger at the treatment of women in his largely Muslim country, but the director is more interested in quietly telling the story of two specific women, and letting the audience grasp the big picture without much prodding.
You could say that “Lingui,” which premiered on Thursday, is a distant companion piece of sorts to “A Screaming Man,” which explored the relationship between a father and son against the backdrop of the country’s civil war. This time, the relationship is between a mother and daughter, and the backdrop is the oppressive religious and legal climate for women in the country.
Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) is the mother and Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) the 15-year-old daughter, who live on the outskirts of N’Djamena in a community where the mosque is the center of life. The film patiently sets out the daily routine: Amina strips metal from old tires and fashions it into cone-shaped cooking stoves, which she sells in a local bazaar. The women have a dog, a cat and a neighbor who wants to marry Amina, but she resists; she thinks he just feels sorry for her because she’s spent much of her life as an outcast because she was a single mother.
Maria, meanwhile, is acting sullen and withdrawn, which, it turns out, is because she’s pregnant. She wants an abortion, but that’s both illegal and unthinkable in this strict religious community — until despair turns to determination for both mother and daughter, who find a doctor who’ll do it for 1 million CFA francs. Currently, that’s a little less than $2,000, but it’s far beyond Amina’s means. (It’s the total proceeds from 500 of those handmade stoves.)
There’s an urgency to the story, but not to the filmmaking. Haroun lets the vivid characters and the remarkable actresses provide the propulsion, while his camera sits back and watches; as a director, he’s not very interested in calling attention to himself. The style is so quiet and naturalistic that we don’t hear any music except when it’s in the background of the characters’ lives — occasionally overheard dance beats, more often prayer calls and chanting and seem increasingly ominous as the film goes on.
The desperate situation serves to bond Amina and Maria, and also to reconcile Amina with her long-estranged sister Fatima, who shows up asking for help after her husband insists that their young daughter undergo female circumcision (or genital mutilation). The women all exist in an environment that limits and controls them; when Amina looks into a cloud-mottled sky as if she’s dreaming of escape, the camera shoots her from below so that we can’t help but notice the walls hemming her in on all sides.
You could compare “Lingui” to an African version of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” but that probably shortchanges two dramatically different versions of a young woman struggling to exercise control of her body in an environment that seems relentlessly hostile. But neither film is a polemic; they both simply follow their characters and let the audience absorb what these women are going through. At the end of “Lingui,” there’s a shocking act of violence that nonetheless feels entirely warranted, and then a happy ending of sorts that seems a bit facile. But after everything that’s preceded it, you can’t really begrudge these women at least a brief vision of freedom.