CHADIAN FILMMAKER TAKES A STRONG STAND FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS

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Mahamat-Saleh Haroun en 2017 au Festival du film international de Toronto. AFP - VALERIE MACON

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Mahamat-Saleh Haroun was seven years old when he first heard that a newborn baby was found dead in the trash. A few weeks later, another baby was similarly found. Tragically, this was nothing out of the ordinary in a repressive society that denied women the right to control their bodies, to have babies when they were ready, or to refuse to be cut in the practice known as FGM.

“Unwanted pregnancies are becoming an increasingly important problem,” he said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “There are more and more reports of people discovering abandoned newborns, often dead. It’s horrible – all of that because of bans and the shame of carrying a so­-called ‘illegitimate child.’ “Further, clandestine abortions are dangerous with often tragic ends as many of the people who carry out abortions are charlatans.”

“Lingui, the Sacred Bonds,” is the latest work by this accomplished cineaste who has already made six feature-length films – all but one set in Chad. Here, Haroun cuts away from his usual themes to tell the story of Amina, a thirty-something mother and practicing Muslim, who lives with her daughter Maria. As a Muslim, she learns to her horror that her daughter is pregnant although she is not to learn why – just yet.

It’s an unwanted pregnancy for the teenager who is determined to have an abortion. Her mother finally comes round to the idea, and the question becomes: how to get the abortion done? The single mom confronts a dilemma in a country where abortion isn’t just condemned by religion – it’s also prohibited by law.

This is a strong film about women’s resistance and a forthright challenge to Chad’s patriarchy. “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds,” is noteworthy for another reason. It’s the director’s very first film with female leads since he launched his career almost 30 years ago, and here he has made a film that’s sensitive to feminist causes in Chad.

In his formative years, Haroun was surrounded by women – mother, aunties, four sisters, and one formidable grandmother who kept him sensitive to women’s causes. The day after he was beaten by a teacher at Koranic school, his grandmother marched up to give the man a piece of her mind: “My grandson will never come back to your school!” she declared.

“Normally, a woman would never do this. The shame!” he recalled with a smile. “She had a very strong personality.”

After three decades behind the camera, Haroun remains determined to represent Chad on screen. There are very few filmmakers in the country and if Haroun stopped making films, audiences would likely never see images of the country or get the Chadian worldview on the big screen.

Rihane Khalil Alio, left, and Achouackh Abakar Souleymane in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds.” (Credit:MUBI)

He believes African directors have a responsibility to be honest when dealing with the problems of the continent. “Cinema can’t be a luxury, or just entertainment,” he said. “Not for Africans where there are so many problems, remnants of colonialism, that we can’t. African filmmakers have a duty to wake people up, into thinking about the continent’s future. That a film can change the course of history in a country like Chad, I find that miraculous.”

His female leads – Chadian actresses Achouackh Abakar Souleymane as Amina and Rihane Khalil Alio as Maria – both came into the project with little to no experience in acting. Haroun attributes this to the absence of a film infrastructure in the country, which he hopes can change with the growing international acceptance of his films.

“They are non-professional, but for me, they are my professionals,” he said of his female stars. “In Chad, where there isn’t a film industry or training grounds, they are professional, and it’s just their first film.”

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