Abortion drama from Chad stirs Cannes Film Festival

CANNES, France — Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, whose drama “Lingui” has been a standout of the first week of the Cannes Film Festival, has a unique relationship as a filmmaker to his native country of Chad.

Haroun is one of the African nation’s only film directors and easily its most prominent. That role — national cinematic spokesman — has given him a heavy responsibility.

“If I don’t bring images from Chad, my country will be forgotten,” Haroun said in an interview. “I have to make films to give other images of my country, rather than the cliché images of war, et cetera. It becomes more than a passion. It becomes a duty.”

Haroun, who has lived in France since leaving Chad in 1982, has set all but one of his eight features there. “Lingui,” which is in competition for the top Palme d’Or prize at Cannes, is his first film with a female protagonist.

Amina (played by Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) is a single mother and practicing Muslim whose 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) is pregnant. On the outskirts of Chad’s capital of N’Djamena, the unwanted pregnancy is a grave concern. It means certain ostracism for Maria — the same stigma that her mother knows herself.

Abortions are only legal in Chad if the woman has suffered sexual violence or her life is in immediate danger. The high hurdles to abortion mean access is all but impossible and often done dangerously at home.

“When I’m in Chad,” says Haroun,” I have a lot of people telling me: ‘You have to make a film about this subject. You are the filmmaker. You have to become our spokesman and make this film, this subject. We can’t, because we are afraid of the government. You can.’”

“I belong to the community,” he added. “I am the one who can tell stories that they deny.”

The title of “Lingui” is Chadian word that translates as “common thread” or “sacred bond.” Vividly filmed with vibrant local color and nonprofessional actors, it movingly captures a clandestine sisterhood in a male-controlled society. Haroun considers it a tribute to the nation’s women.

For a year, Haroun was Chad’s minister of culture before resigning in 2018 after disagreements with the government. In September, he will hold screenings of “Lingui” around the country, he says.

The film has been enthusiastically received by critics in Cannes, something Haroun says is heartening but not totally surprising to him.

“I’m a cooker, you know, so I know when something is well done,” he says, grinning.

Only one film from Africa has ever won Cannes’ top honor, the Palme d’Or: Algerian director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s “Chronicle of the Years of Fire” in 1975.

Haroun has previously taken a prize in Cannes with his civil war-set “A Screaming Man,” which won the jury prize in 2010. At the last Cannes, in 2019, Mati Diop’s Senegalese drama “Atlantics” won the grand prize. This year, there are two films from Africa in competition; the other is Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s “Casablanca Beats.”

“We are coming and coming and coming,” says Haroun, smiling. “We knock on the door. We try.”

Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP