Freedom doesn’t come easily in “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds,” an electric liberation story about a mother and daughter. It is fought for — and seized — by women who, in saving themselves, save one another. For the daughter, autonomy means securing an abortion in a country that forbids it. For the mother, an observant Muslim, self-sovereignty is a revolutionary act, one that necessitates a shift in thinking and in being. It means saying no, dancing, sneaking smokes and fighting when need be. It means finding new ways to be a woman in this man’s world.
The story unfolds in present-day N’Djamena, Chad, where Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) spends much of her time on just getting by. With her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), Amina lives in a humble home with a rickety gate, thick walls and a sweet, playful dog and charming kitten. For money, Amina makes small, ingeniously designed coal stoves using steel wires that she painstakingly salvages from old car and truck tires she buys. When she’s made enough, she covers her head and body, gingerly balances the stoves on her head and roams the city selling them for the equivalent of a few dollars.
The family’s domestic tranquillity has already been disrupted when the story opens, though you’re as in the dark about what’s gone wrong as Amina is. The writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, however, is a fast worker — the movie runs just shy of 90 minutes — and he rapidly sketches in the story and the grim stakes for both mother and daughter. Maria has been expelled from school because she’s pregnant. (“It’s bad for our image,” a school official coolly explains.) Maria won’t name the father. And she does not want a child, partly because she doesn’t want to end up like Amina, who has suffered for being a single mother.
Much as in the American independent movie “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” the struggle to obtain a safe abortion here is difficult, life-changing and profound. Narratively, the effort to secure one rapidly takes the shape of an odyssey, a voyage filled with misadventures, harrowing threats and gendered hurdles. For Amina, these obstacles include government prohibitions on abortion, empty pockets, wagging fingers and shaking heads. There’s the hectoring imam (Saleh Sambo) who questions her faith; and there’s the pesky neighbor (Youssouf Djaoro) who’s happy to flirt with her but won’t lend her money.