Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s sixth fiction feature arrives after it took his native Chad by storm last year. Telling the story of women bound by oppression, Lingui, The Sacred Bonds is an astonishing film of female resistance and survival.
Lingui’s storytelling is characterised by its authenticity: little surprise given that Haroun is a veteran documentarian and the actors here are all non-professional. The film is saturated with atmosphere, grit and physicality, from the chaotic traffic and winding passageways, and the sweat that beads down protagonist Amina’s face as she works, transforming scrap tyres into beautiful wire stoves. The camera, whether in medium shot or close ups, sits still and allows the naturalistic performances to flourish.
Yet for all its documentary authenticity, Lingui is also an intensely beautiful film. The yellows, reds and blues of its colour palette are vivid, and through their gorgeous design, the colours of the characters’ costumes and make up become visual signifiers for them. Meanwhile, cinematographer Mathieu Giombini’s frequently frames his figures off centre against or partially obscured by domestic buildings, angular alleyways and multiple parallax frames, the overall effect of which is a mise-en-scène of layered visual labyrinths.
Beyond its lovely visuals, moving story and authentic performances, it is perhaps Lingui’s evocation of the banal routine of oppression, of the habits that perpetuate systemic misogyny, that is the film’s most powerful stroke. As a male, western viewer, this reviewer’s own ignorance (or perhaps inattentiveness) was laid bare in a scene in which Amina, who is seeking an illegal abortion for her teenage daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), is told about the fake circumcisions offered by a backstreet abortionist. Naively, I wondered how how one could fake a procedure with such an obvious visual result, before realising that of course she was talking about female genital mutilation.
This is a key scene for several reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates the insidious ways that misogyny legitimates itself through the banality of language; a horrific practice disguised as a legitimate medical procedure. So effective that its effect worked unconsciously – if briefly – on at least one naïve viewer. Secondly, it is a key moment in the realisation of Lingui’s full title: of the sacred and unspoken bonds between women, surreptitiously organising and resisting their shared oppression. Amidst the abortionist’s dusty implements and ramshackle ‘clinic’, it is at once heart breaking and affirming.
Oppression hides itself behind veils of normativity, through religion, medical practices, sexual morality and domesticity. In response, the sacred bonds operate between the lines, in the gaps and labyrinthine back alleys where misogyny’s panopticon can’t see. This network of bonds are everywhere, from Amina and her friend looking out for each other as they sell their roadside wares, to the nurse who refuses to take payment for Maria’s abortion, and the sister who, after abandoning Amina after she fell pregnant, finally repairs broken ties.
These disparate moments are knitted together as a hidden covenant that protects women from men’s dehumanisation. Lingui’s final scene is the perfect expression of this: dripping in irony, women dance and celebrate seemingly for Amina’s niece’s ‘circumcision’. But as we see who is to perform the procedure we know the true reason for their jubilation as Amina’s witless brother-in-law looks on, oblivious.