‘I wanted to be on the side of women’: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun on his abortion drama in Chad | Movie
AAs a young boy in Chad, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun grew up surrounded by women – mother, aunts, four sisters, a wonderful grandmother. The day after he was beaten by a Koranic school teacher, his grandmother approached him to tell him what she thought: “My grandson will never come back to your schoolL.Haroun mimicked his angry finger and smiled warmly. “She had a very strong personality. Normally a woman would never do that. Shame!”
Haroun’s childhood instilled in him, he says, respect for women. But in his career as Chad’s only prominent filmmaker – and one of Africa’s best-known film exports – he has told stories of men and boys. His magnificent film Abouna tells the story of two young brothers in search of their father. A Screaming Man told the story of a hotel pool attendant who takes his son to war; After winning the jury prize at Cannes in 2010, the Chadian government rebuilt the country’s only cinema (it has been closed since the start of the pandemic).
Now in her early 60s, Haroun has made her first film with female leads. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is the story of a single mother, Amina, who is shocked to discover that her 15-year-old daughter is pregnant and wants an abortion. At first, she refuses. Abortion in Chad is illegal; they are Muslims – religion forbids it. But she comes to the idea, and the question becomes: how to have an abortion? It’s a film about women’s resistance and a frank challenge to Chadian patriarchy.
The idea to make a film about an unwanted pregnancy came to Haroun after reading a newspaper article about an abandoned newborn found dead in a pile of garbage. Articles like this appear with grim predictability in Chad. This time, something clicked. “When I read it, I said, ‘I have to do something.’ I wanted to be on the women’s side, because it’s a huge problem.
And the men? Haroun sighs. “Men are always out of line. The culprit is always the woman. In cases where pregnancy is the result of rape, women and girls are rarely believed. He adds: “There is the feeling that the female body belongs to men. It is available to them. »
Haroun speaks from his home in Paris; he has lived in France since the early 1980s, after fleeing the civil war in Chad. Like his films, he is sweet, thoughtful and sincere. Dressed in a dapper suit, very starched white shirt, nicely tied tie and yellow waistcoat, one could easily take him for a politician.
In fact, he briefly turned to politics. In 2017, he was appointed Minister of Culture of Chad. “I quit after a year,” he shrugs wearily. “I naively thought that I could change things. I was wrong.” One of the bills he supported would have legalized abortion; it failed to pass through parliament.
So, back to his day job, Haroun led Lingui. The story follows Amina on her mission. The clock is turning. A sympathetic doctor tells Amina that he faces five years in prison if caught performing an abortion; its price is incredibly high. Amina also investigates the clandestine option – unsafe abortions in Chad put the lives of women and girls at risk.
Lingui sounds like a tough watch. But it’s not dark at all. Like all of Haroun’s work, it is a beautifully observed and deeply human film. And it’s satisfyingly feminist. Amina is a single mother herself, raising her daughter, Maria, out of wedlock. For years, she sucked in the disapproving looks of her judgmental neighbors, lived with shame. We watch Amina take control of life.
“Because she is marginalized, she has nothing to lose,” Haroun says. “She is ready to fight to save her daughter, and by saving her daughter, she saves herself.” He scans the screen. “Do you understand me very well? He often does interviews with an interpreter, but today he translates from French himself.
Lingui is a film about women who unite, unite; unite to help Amina. It features a wonderful midwife, played by Hadj Fatimé Ngoua, pharmacist in real life, friend of Haroun. (There is no film industry in Chad, no infrastructure, and few professional actors. So Haroun chooses friends and people he scouts.) We also watch Amina help her sister, whose husband insists that their baby girl – Amina’s niece – undergo female genital mutilation. Amina knows a woman who practices fake FGM (to deceive men who insist on having their daughters cut). FGM is illegal in Chad but still widely practiced.
“I grew up seeing the solidarity of women,” says Haroun. He tells me about a tradition in Chad of women forming mutuals. Each month, each member donates money and the total is given to whoever needs it the most: to start a business or to make ends meet. “Because you can’t just wait for the men. Women find the solution. This is the traditional method. He pauses and laughs to himself: “It’s the invention of insurance.”
That’s how you do feminism in Chad, he says, a society in which there are things you can’t discuss or negotiate. “It’s pragmatic feminism. Women don’t have the theory – they just have to find a solution. There is a problem, and you must act, or you will disappear. This is how I think women can survive in this society in Chad.
The movie title, lingui, he adds, is a Chadian word that translates to “living together”. “Which means that if you belong to the same community, if you live in the same space, you must take care of each other, in the spirit of solidarity and benevolence.”
I ask Haroun if there has been a backlash to the film in Chad. He shakes his head. “When we had the first official screening with the authorities, the Minister of Culture was so moved. She said to all the women in the cinema: ‘Each of us here knows this story. This is our reality, we have to change this .
A few days later, I talk to Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, the actor who plays Amina. Speaking about Zoom from Chad, she says that like all the women who have appeared in the film, she was previously nervous about its subjects of abortion and rape. “But at the same time, I wanted to do it because people make movies to talk about their problems. Everything is taboo in Chad. So someone has to do it. She was overwhelmed by the responses from the audience: people keep telling me, ‘You’re brave…’ Or they’re saying, ‘This is our life, our story.'”
Souleymane met Haroun while working as a costume assistant on his 2013 film Grigris. The day he called her for an audition for Lingui, she was in the hospital and had just woken up after giving birth to her son. son by caesarean section. “I didn’t tell Haroun because I didn’t want him to know. I was like, ‘Maybe I can meet next week,'” she told me, laughing. She ended up shooting the movie when her baby was three months old, stopping every hour or so to nurse. “At first we had to do makeup to give me dark circles, but after a while we didn’t need it anymore.”
If Haroun stopped making films, cinema would lose its only glimpse of life in Chad, and Chadians would lose a mirror of their society. This gives him a raison d’être: he wants his films to give a boost to people, to wake them up, to make them look at the future of their continent. It is also about showing the world a true image of Chad. “The first representations of Africans were made by others. So my cinema consists in trying to break this false image. It is a duty and a responsibility. My films couldn’t just be entertainment.