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‘You can debate an ideology, not a religion,’ says Chadian film director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Wednesday, 14 July 2021 10:44

Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun attends the photocall of his film “Lingui” on 9 July 2021 in Cannes. Daniele Venturelli/WireImage/Gettyimages

This is a major comeback for Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who for several years has been missing from the African film scene, of which he is one of the two great figures alongside Abderrahman Sissako. Already a regular figure on Cannes' Croisette road, Chad’s former culture minister is again in the competition - a third time – for the Palme d'Or with his new film 'Lingui, Les Liens Sacrés'.

The last feature film he presented at the world’s biggest film festival was Grigris, back in 2013. And the last award he won was the 2010 Jury Prize for Un Homme Qui Crie, four years after winning a similar prize in Venice for the superb Daratt, Saison Sèche.

He also made a discreet return to the Côte d’Azur in 2016 to screen his documentary Hissein Habré, Une Tragédie Tchadienne. It recounted the courageous and determined fight of the dictatorship’s victims to obtain reparations for abuses suffered in the 1980s.

Political interlude

Haroun had been completing a French feature film – Une Saison en France, which featured well-known professional actors Sandrine Bonnaire and Eriq Ebouaney – when he was appointed minister of culture, tourism and handicrafts by former president Idriss Déby Itno in early 2017.

This political interlude lasted only one year as it ended with a somewhat forced resignation. It was then that he decided to write the script for Lingui and return to Chad to film it with locally recruited cast.

Subtitled Les Liens Sacrés, the film tells the story of how Amina – who has always been rejected by her family because she’s a single mother – feels like her life is about to fall apart when she discovers that her daughter Maria, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, is pregnant after being raped. Maria doesn’t want to talk about it and is determined to have an abortion despite Amina’s reluctance.

Amina reminds Maria of the religious and legal prohibitions surrounding abortion, as well as the fact that they lack the resources to carry out an operation that is not only risky but also very expensive. The two women – who live together in a suburb of Chad’s capital N’Djamena – embark on a gruelling journey that not only tests their limits but also the virtues of solidarity within the land of ‘lingui’.

Palme d’Or?

This film, which was well-received during its official presentation at the Palais des Festivals, is the only one from sub-Saharan Africa that is competing for the Palme d’Or.

There is something incredibly beautiful about Lingui, despite its austere subject which is treated in a sobering and straightforward manner. Could it be a sign of things to come for African films at Cannes, after more than half a century of scarce representation?

The last – and only – Palme d’Or awarded to a film from the continent dates back to 1967, when Algeria’s Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won the accolade for Chronique des Années de Braise. It is only Haroun and Morocco’s Nabil Ayouch (also in competition this year) who have a chance at breaking this glass ceiling.

Today, after an intense period marked by accepting a political post at the head of one of Chad’s ministries and making a French film, you are back in Cannes, and given the subject of the film competing on the Croisette, back in Africa. Are these happy returns?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: I am rather happy about it. But not always. Every time I come back to Cannes, I feel a whole new emotion, it’s never the same. It’s a unique experience to be had again and again.

Why was there a year’s wait, when the film was ready in 2020 and the festival announced a selection that year? And once Cannes was cancelled, why didn’t you show the film at the Venice Film Festival – the other major event that hosted you and awarded one of your very first feature films Bye Bye Africa in 1999?

In fact, last year, the festival asked me to choose whether I would prefer to release the film with the Cannes 2020 label or wait a year. A film like mine needs as much visibility as possible, that’s why I wanted it to be screened at Cannes. So I waited.

Regarding Venice, I simply did not want to go. Times have changed. Italy, for quite a few years now, has become a country that is closed to cinema from elsewhere, like mine. Only American films are welcome. The Italians don’t buy our films, they’re not interested. Showing my film in a territory that will never distribute it is the kind of violence that I just can’t handle at my age.

From the beginning, your films have revolved around themes such as failing fathers, exile and war. Lingui marks a complete change in your style, as it features a mother and her daughter at the centre of the story. Are you influenced by the current times, by #MeToo? 

I have indeed moved on, and onto women. To responsible and conscious mothers, above all. But I wrote my script before #MeToo. Moreover, the questions raised by this movement refer to situations – abortion in particular – that Chadian women have been experiencing for many years, for as long as there has been a state in Chad.

Before that, women had always been able to terminate unwanted pregnancies. But when they found themselves confronted with a state, a neocolonial one to be precise, they had to deal with a political power that prohibited abortion by means of harsh laws. They also had to deal with people and a society that wanted to deprive women of their freedom of choice.

Why did you choose this subject? Is it based on a true story? 

No, it’s not based on any one specific story. It is a subject of permanent interest in Chad, where there are many stories similar to the one Lingui tells. It has even become commonplace because the press is talking about it. Discarded foetuses have been found, newborns are abandoned. It’s important to know that in Chad, young girls don’t receive any sexual education.

And when they become pregnant, they are blamed and told that they have dishonoured their family. So they have to get rid of the problem, one way or another. For those who choose to have an abortion, which is obviously illegal, it often ends in tragedy. That is why I wanted to tackle this subject.

Is Chadian justice really so unforgiving, even in cases of rape?

It is harsh but tries to be fair. The justice system zigzags as much as it can since legislation is not part of its mandate. The legislator, on the other hand, has complete control. In the case of rape, you can ask a judge for permission to carry out an abortion, but the judge can’t give a ruling without an order issued by the national assembly. All this takes so long that in the end, the procedure can no longer be carried out.

The title of the film, Lingui, evokes a bond, solidarity. Is this an African virtue that is of great importance to Chad?

This is particularly important in Chad. Because solidarity – ‘lingui’ – is the tenet on which we rely on to build a community. It’s not like elsewhere where solidarity is based on circumstance because we don’t have enough to eat, for example. In this concept of sharing and mutual aid, there is ultimately a notion of loyalty. “I will not harm you because I am loyal and because there are sacred bonds that unite us.” And if I break this lingui, I know there is a great risk of conflict. So it’s lingui that holds society together.

And in the film, as the mother comes to realise the bond has been broken by her neighbour, she becomes more violent. Is this an acceptable reaction, even if it’s not normal? 

In a way, lingui serves as the neighbour and the neighbourhood’s set of ethics. In the film, the neighbour is the rapist, so the problem that the mother and daughter face is directly linked to this man’s disrespectful actions.

Amina is not trying to kill him, but rather teach him a lesson with a club. She does not respect him either and only does what her heart tells her, what she thinks is right, without taking lingui into account.

In the film, the political authorities and, above all, the religious authorities are directly opposed to the characters’ view of abortion as a possible solution. Is the latter more difficult to confront, even though Chad seems to be a country of moderate Islam? 

Yes, it is more difficult to go up against religious power as it is based on a dogma whereas politics is based on an ideology. But an ideology can be debated, it is possible to have a discussion. In Islam, the sacred texts are fixed and cannot be touched. No one has considered revising them, and so we have to apply what dates from the 6th or 7th century.

In Chad, there is no mistaking it. Islam is Sunni and it is actually linked to Wahhabism. It may be soft but it governs people’s lives entirely. Even though it is not an extremist ideology, it has a stranglehold on individuals. You can see it today in how people dress and how they are terrorised because of the way they are.

For many, it may seem like a minor detail, but Amina and Maria have pets, a dog and a cat, who are real characters, family members one might say. This is not common in African films…

I wanted to make them characters, especially as they are not often seen in African films. When I was a child, I remember I had a dog called Patience, like the one in the film, and a cat called Galaxie. One day, when I returned to Chad, the first thing my mother told me – when she welcomed me – was that Galaxie had died. The animals are there for balance, they serve as a memory from a certain time.

The film is very beautiful, its aesthetics have been carefully selected, the light is very present, which contrasts with the rather dark subject. Was this contrast intended to arouse emotion?

I think that in this film, it is the subject, the background that makes the story. So I sought this contrast. I wanted to portray women in general as heroes. I wanted this story to appear as a path towards the light. It is the characters who make things luminous and thus become luminous. This is the message we tried to get across through the direction and photography.

Did your short stint in politics, as a minister, change you as a filmmaker?

Yes, it changed me. I learned things. In particular, the limits of these African states that are fabricated from scratch. At some point, inevitably, you come up against the reign of irresponsibility, in the primary sense of the word.

The inability to provide answers to the problems that arise is tragic. I think I am certainly more useful when I make films than when I try to participate in the political world.

Was it a bitter experience that put an end to any desire of having a career in politics? 

Yes, a bitter experience. Politics is definitely over for me. However, I do keep an eye out on projects that I initiated, for example, the film school that I launched.

What does the state of Chad inspire in you today?

I don’t want to talk about politics right now, as I just want to focus on my film’s message.

But obviously, Chad’s continuing instability does worry me. It is extremely concerning for the millions of its inhabitants and the country’s future.

Do the debates in France, where you live most of the time, centred around the ‘decolonial’ aspect and the indigenous population’s movement concern you? Do you have any strong feelings about them? 

In fact, I feel a bit alienated from it. I made the choice to live in France and therefore to form a community with other people, to share values and not to claim my singularity. I feel that lingui breaks if one insists on their own individual identity in order to exist within a community.

It can be dangerous to brandish this, and to use the example of the US, when we do not have the same history, the same experience. However, it is a question of signalling a malaise and may well be an obligatory stage through which France’s history must pass. And once those who have this identity problem have found a balance, perhaps we will no longer have any obstacles in our way and will be able to move forward together.

As the only sub-Saharan African in competition at Cannes, and very often the only one from the continent in many international festivals, is this a difficult situation to live with? Is it hopeless for African cinema?

Yes, it is a bit desperate. I like the fact that being here allows me to be an example, to arouse excitement for African cinema, and hope that my presence will eventually become banal. I admit that sometimes it’s a bit difficult to say to myself: “Come on, we must take up arms, because if I don’t make a film, there won’t be another one.”

Yes, I feel a bit lonely as I have the impression that I’m – cinematographically speaking – carrying the continent on my shoulders.

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