Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is the Chadian film-maker whose 2002 movie Abouna – my favourite of his – has a claim to classic status. Now he returns with a film that is recognisably a part of African cinema’s quietist walking-pace tradition, set in a place where, on its outskirts, the city becomes a village. The two distant ambient sounds are barnyard chickens and incessant traffic noise. Yet for all its ostensible gentleness, his storytelling is driven by a need to challenge the country’s reactionary theocratic males. There are fierce and even shocking stabs of sexuality and violence cutting through the opaque, stoic calm.
The title Lingui is the Chadian word meaning sacred bonds, and on the question of abortion, the male rulers of church and state think the really sacred bond is between mother and unborn child, or perhaps more pertinently, between submissive women and autocratic menfolk. But the men’s opposition to abortion co-exists with an enormous enthusiasm for female genital mutilation. The film shows that they are two halves of a whole, and the women involved feel that their sacred bonds are those of loyalty to each other.
Amina is a single mother who has to pretend that her husband is dead; in fact, she was made pregnant by a man who simply deserted her. Now she makes a living creating wire stoves out of reclaimed materials, chiefly the circular wiring inside discarded tyres. It is a strong and charismatic performance from Achouackh Abakar, whose calmly assertive face is repeatedly captured in extreme closeup. Her teenage daughter Maria is a smart, popular pupil at the local high school, but she has just been expelled for being pregnant, without a word of concern from the hatchet-faced and disapproving headteacher. Rihane Khalil Alio gives a performance of defiant scorn as Maria.
Wretched Amina is horrified at the thought of her daughter having an abortion, because she feels the need to conform to religious teachings, and placate the local imam. But the film shows how she is also wretched at another thought: the feeling that, yes, Maria is quite right; that this is her body and that she should be allowed to do what she wants. This thought complicates the already fraught mother-daughter relationship, as Amina was in this situation herself not so long ago. Now Amina must consider how far she is prepared to go, how far she is prepared to abase herself to get her daughter the abortion she wants.
All of this is to bring the two women into contact with Amina’s estranged sister Fanta (Briya Gomdigue), whose own daughter is threatened with FGM, and their middle-aged male neighbour Brahim (Youssouf Djaoro), who has made a proposition of marriage to the deeply ambivalent Amina.
In its way, Lingui is about the idea of community and people looking out for each other. But this is a secret community of women, a community that exists beneath or beyond the official community presided over by the imam, who is forever coldly hectoring Amina for not coming to the mosque and for not confiding her problems to him (Amina is far too shrewd to do anything of the sort). It is the figure of Amina’s unromantic but well-off suitor, Brahim, who is to be the nexus of all this: is this to be their way out, or another unsacred bond tying mother and daughter to their servitude?
The intense, focused performances from the two central women keep this drama in a hyper-alert state: we are intensely aware of all that is at stake and how mother and daughter are battling for survival, and teetering on a precipice of unacknowledged shame. I am not entirely sure that Haroun entirely absorbs into the drama the shocking act of violence, with all its necessary consequences. But the sheer seriousness and urgency of the deceptively unhurried story give it power.
• Lingui screens on 8 July at Cannes film festival.