It’s a formula that is no stranger to blockbuster features: courageous characters tangled in tragic circumstances – with all odds tremendously stacked against them – find the tenacity to challenge the status quo and come out on top. With Difret, we get something similar: a story of conflict that is fierce enough for fiction, but is a true story. Adding to the intrigue, the film gives us a glimpse into the complexities of Ethiopia, a country rarely captured on the big screen, as it transitions towards equal rights.
Directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, Difret follows 14-year-old Hirut, a bright village girl far beyond her years. It’s the mid-1990s. Three hours outside of the capital of Addis Ababa, Hirut is abducted on her way home from school by a group of men on horseback. A victim of telefa, or marriage by abduction, Hirut is raped by her would-be husband and locked in a barn. While attempting escape, she grabs a rifle and shoots her captor dead.
In rural villages, the practice of abduction into marriage is common and one of Ethiopia’s oldest traditions. For her crime, Hirut must face trial and potentially serve a life sentence. Enter Meaza Ashenafi, an empowered and brave young lawyer from the capital, who takes Hirut’s case and argues that the young girl acted in self-defense.
With her practice Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, which gives legal aid to marginalised Ethiopian women, Meaza Ashenafi boldly embarks on a collision course between enforcing civil authority and abiding by customary law. She’s up against aggressively rooted patriarchy with a risk of losing everything – her practice, her reputation, and Hirut’s freedom. The film takes a view of a society on the brink of change, while looking at the personal repercussions of breaking centuries-old traditions.
“I’ve been very careful about using the word tradition versus modernity,” said director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari. “This particular tradition of telefahas been there for centuries. It’s a harmful tradition. The idea of people fighting for something that is wrong, does not necessarily suggest a new chapter or a modern society, but a chance to examine particular traditions and say, ‘We don’t want to keep this harmful tradition.’ For me, the society transitioned because for the first time they were given a chance to debate openly, not taking any of their traditions at face value.”
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Mehari studied film in the United States before returning to his native country to work. Circumstances led him to Meaza Ashenafi, who back in 1995 was a household name and is still synonymous with Ethiopia’s fight for women’s rights. The filmmaker went through her cases and discovered the young Hirut. It had all the elements of a great feature: a story that plays with opposites – man versus woman, tradition versus constitution, village versus the city – and tries to strike a harmonious balance. Mehari was committed to exploring Ashenafi’s fight on film.
“Abduction is one of the most entrenched, harmful, traditional practices in Ethiopia,” said Meaza Ashenafi. “Since it’s part of culture, it’s a way of life, so it’s very difficult to enforce the law at times. But thanks to this case, the situation has changed a little bit over the last 10 years. The practice is still there, but it has been mitigated.”
Back in the 1990s, Ashenafi’s case was documented on every radio and TV station in the country, reaching the international media too. “When the case happened, CNN and BBC covered it for two years,” said Mehari. But the filmmaker wanted to bring his own take to one of the biggest cases in his country’s recent history. In fact, the trial resulted in a change of the Ethiopian Constitution Commission, which guarantees the economic social and political rights of women.
“I’m not really a documentary filmmaker,” said Mehari. “What I wanted to do was tell the story of the lawyer in a way that encapsulated what she wanted to do with tradition, while also making sure the constitutional rights of all people are protected and sometimes enforced. So that was my entry point.”
Making a film in Ethiopia has its fair share of uphill battles. While the country has a long tradition of theatre, filmmaking is not a refined practice. The first films shot by Ethiopians were made in the 1960s; the second boom of filmmaking happened in the 90s.
With no film schools and no industry, Ethiopia produces about 80 to 100 films per year, mostly on digital video for local consumption with hardly any stories crossing over into Western cinemas. But with fifty-two percent of the population under the age of twenty-five, film might be the new medium that is catching on.
Mehari spent three years researching and scripting Difret, a word that means “courage” in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, but also refers to rape. Then came the challenge of funding. The producers wanted to make the film without compromise, and sought only private funding. They even used crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter to get the film off the ground. It also didn’t hurt to have Angelina Jolie come on board as executive producer five months into post-production. During filming however, with no industry to support it, the crew struggled to transport hundreds of pounds of gear into Ethiopia. They had to send rolls of film every couple of days to India to be processed.
The trial resulted in a change of the Ethiopian Constitution Commission
Difret is only the fourth film to ever be shot on 35mm, and the cinematographer, Monika Lenczewska, is the first woman ever to shoot a film in Ethiopia. “We decided to make this film on 35mm because we wanted the country to be as much of a character in the film as the lawyer and the young girl are,” said Mehari.
Eight months into casting and still without a leading actress, Mehari discovered Tizita Hagere who plays Hirut through an after-school acting workshop. For the rest of the cast, Mehari employed mainly non-actors, with 80 percent of them never having acted before. Yet every film needs a star. Meron Getnet, who plays the leading role of Meaza Ashenafi, is one of Ethiopia’s most popular actresses.
Burrowing from reality, the director shot the film in a documentary vein, with a close camera right in the center of the action. “It was a deliberate choice. I wanted people to feel the texture of the story,” explained Mehari.
“For the longest time, if you read an NGO or media report, it was always once removed. We’re always talking about a number: this percent of women in this region get abducted. I wanted the audience to be part of the film, to judge for themselves. Ninety-five percent of the time the camera is hand-held. It was, in a way, an act of having the film come to you.”
Difret premiered at Sundance, where it also won the Audience Award, and is garnering major media coverage in Ethiopia. The producers are also working with outreach organizations to take the film to rural areas without cinemas, since telefa tends to proliferate more in these regions.
“Telefa has been part of the culture for the last 2000 years, it’s so normal,” explains Meaza Ashenafi, who sees the film as a convergence of human rights and art. “But there’s a lot of interest and enthusiasm about this movie, not because it’s an entertaining product, but because the expectation is that it will spark a momentum, it will spark a dialogue on women’s rights.”
Mehari has similar hopes. “I think the news got out, the conversation is back on. People are still talking about abduction and we want that to continue,” he said. “We want that to actually go away from the media and go into people’s homes, schools, and religious institutions to have an open dialogue together, so maybe we can find a solution.”