Mahamat-Saleh Haroun Calls Cannes Competition Title ‘Lingui’ a ‘Tribute’ to Women of Chad

Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun returns to the sun-scrubbed Sahel region of West Africa for his latest feature, “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds,” which competes for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Set on the outskirts of the capital city of N’Djamena, “Lingui” is the story of a single mother, Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), whose already fragile world threatens to collapse when she learns that her daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio Brahim), is pregnant — a birth the 15-year-old is desperate to terminate. But in a country where abortion is condemned by Islamic faith and banned by law, Amina finds herself facing an impossible battle.

The film highlights the traditional bonds that hold Chadian society together, even at times when the social fabric in the vast, arid West African country— which has struggled with instability and violence throughout much of its post-independence history — threatens to unravel. For women especially, Haroun says, these sacred bonds, or “lingui,” offer a form of solidarity in a male-dominated society. “The women use that to support each other,” he says. “That’s how they continue to resist.”

Throughout his two-plus decades of filmmaking, Haroun’s oeuvre has inhabited a man’s world, from his Venice jury prizewinner “Daratt,” about a teenage boy sent to the city to murder the man who killed his father, to his Cannes player “Grigris,” which told the story of a disabled dancer who gets swept up in an illegal gasoline-trafficking ring.

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With “Lingui,” however, he felt it was finally time to bring the stories of Chadian women to the screen. “The situation is not easy. There is a lot of violence. There is a lot of injustice,” he says, describing the film as “a tribute” to the women of the West African nation.

Haroun left Chad in the 1980s, in the midst of a brutal and seemingly interminable civil war, and has called France his home for nearly four decades. His cinematic output, however, has returned time and again to his West African roots. “I was born there. I spent my childhood there,” he says. “Part of my memory is based in Chad, so I’m always coming back and telling these stories.”

The director says he considers it his “duty” to represent his people, fearing a country largely ignored by the West will otherwise become “a black hole.” But he insists he has larger ambitions as a filmmaker. “The most important thing is just to tell universal stories, talking about man and woman everywhere,” he says. “My country is cinema. I don’t belong to Chad. I belong to cinema.”

Haroun has been a Cannes regular since his 2010 feature “A Screaming Man” played in competition — a first for his country — and took home the jury prize. He returned with “Grigris” in 2013, and again three years later with “Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy,” a documentary about the victims of the regime of Chad’s former dictator, who was convicted of crimes against humanity.

This year he and Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch are the only African filmmakers to have films in the official selection in Cannes. Though the Chadian helmer confesses his disappointment, he acknowledges the challenges facing the continent’s filmmakers. “I would like to see more African films there, but the situation is very difficult. We don’t produce a lot of films,” he says.

Still, he insists that African filmmakers need to have a presence on the Croisette. “It’s a wonderful place to show your work, a wonderful place to let people see your work,” he says, calling it a “dream” to play in Cannes. “African cinema is invisible. It’s very important for us just to be there, to be seen.”

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