By Darlene Donloe
Difret is one of those movies that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater.
It’s disturbing, it’s scary, it’s emotional, it’s gut-wrenching and above all – a true story. It’s the ‘true story’ part that makes the film so powerful.
The term difret means courage or ‘to dare,’ in Amharic, which is the official Ethiopian language. But it can also refer to rape!
The film’s central figure is 14-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) who, on her way home from school gets kidnapped into marriage. She is promptly raped and held captive. During her attempt to escape she grabs a gun and ends up shooting her would-be husband. This didn’t take place back in the day. This actually took place in 1996.
(l-r) Tizita Hagere and Meron Getnet
Enter Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), a young lawyer from the city who has a women’s legal-aid practice called Andinet Women Lawyers Association. She offers to take Hirut’s case. She argues that Hirut killed her abductor in self defense. Hirut’s life has been threatened for not only breaking tradition, but for also killing her abductor. She is facing a death sentence. Villagers, who still accept the kidnapping practice, want Hirut killed for her actions and others want her vilified and exiled.
Ashenafi is met with resistance when she tries to represent Hirut. The local police chief (Moges Yohannes) and assistant D.A. (Brook Sheferaw), both men, don’t want to deal with a woman. They thwart Ashenafi’s every move but she digs in her heels.
It’s painful to watch Hirut crawl inside of herself – feeling helpless and alone because she’s unable to go home to her family. Ashenafi, on the other hand is a fierce sister. She’s like an energizer bunny. She doesn’t know the word NO.
While this sounds horrifying, kidnapping young girls for marriage is an actual customary law and even considered ‘tradition’ in Ethiopia. In fact, the practice called ‘telefa’ or abduction into marriage, is common and one of Ethiopia’s oldest traditions.
Under a 1957 law, telefa was defined as a crime punishable by three years of imprisonment. But the same law provided that if the abductor agreed to marry the girl he abducted and raped, he would not face criminal charges. Hirut Assefa’s case galvanized public opinion and eventually motivated the government to amend the law. Under a revised 2004 criminal code, abduction and rape can result in a penalty of up to 15 years or more.
However, reportedly enforcement of the law is not consistent throughout the country because police stations are few and far between in rural areas, but also because villagers still choose to defer to traditional law, according to the film’s director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari.
The film, shot in Ethiopia using an entire Ethiopian cast, goes beneath the layer of polite social customs to explore a rooted patriarchy that perpetuates hostile conditions for women in Ethiopia.
“Nearly two decades after she was abducted, Hirut Assefa is still in exile from her hometown and her family,” says Mehari. “Because she was exiled under traditional law, if she went back and someone tried to kill her, the police and villagers would not protect her.”
Executive produced by Angelina Jolie, Difret, Mehari’s feature film debut, is Ethiopia’s first film ever to be screened at Sundance.
Difret is the winner of audience awards at several film festivals including the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, World Cinema Amsterdam and Festival de Nouveau Cinema.
Difret, currently in theaters, stars Meron Getnet, an Ethiopian actress, poet and playwright, first time actress Tizita Hagere, Moges Yohannes and Brook Sheferaw.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Difret gets an E (excellent).