Addis Ababa: Nov 3, 2015 – In Amharic, the word difret has multiple meanings. Most commonly it means courage, or the closest English translation, ‘to dare’. It can also mean ‘the act of being raped’. Difret is the title of Ethiopian writer and director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s first feature length film showing in a special one week run at the American Film Institute’s Silver Threatre in Silver Spring. In a single word, the ethos of the movie is captured and the trajectory of the narrative is set in motion. Difret dramatizes the events surrounding a landmark murder trial in Ethiopia in 1996 that challenged a country to come to terms with its traditional past and its aims for an inclusive, progressive future.
While walking home from school, 14-year-old Aberash Bekele was abducted by a 29-year-old farmer and his cohorts as part of the traditional ritual known as “telefa”, or abduction of child brides. She was beaten and raped by the man who intended to make her his wife. When she attempted to escape, taking a semi-automatic rifle that had been left unattended, she was chased and cornered. The encounter ended with Bekele shooting and killing the farmer, and launched a murder trial that would garner international media attention and shake a nation to its core.
With no money to hire legal representation, and facing capital punishment, Bekele’s case was taken by the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association (EWLA), a legal aid nonprofit specializing in women’s issues. She was represented by Meaza Ashenafi who took Bekele in during her trial and ultimately got her acquitted of murder on the grounds of self defense. It was was first time that a woman had been acquitted of murder on these grounds in Ethiopia. The efforts of Ashenafi and the EWLA lawyers also contributed to the outlawing the practice of “telefa” nationwide.
Ethiopian-born director and screenwriter Mehari attempts to capture the emotion behind the facts of the case. Shot on location in 35mm film, Difret features sprawling, majestic wide shots of the Ethiopian countryside and tight, claustrophobic shots of Addis Ababa. The format provides a gritty realism and visually creates the ideological divide between traditional rural Ethiopia and modern Addis Ababa.
Bekele’s name is changed to Hirut Assefa in the film and she is portrayed by first time actress Tizita Hagare. Hegar’s performance is not as emotive as it is telling in her subtle looks and longing gazes. She is a traumatized young girl facing death for protecting herself. She is ripped away from her family and placed in an orphanage in a loud and strange city while she awaits her fate. The unfamiliar sounds of the city, and Hirut’s reactions to them, give the audience a glimpse into the emotional state of a girl retreating into herself while experiencing post traumatic stress.
Hirut’s lawyer, Meaza Ashenafi, is portrayed by Meron Getnet. Getnet takes the reigns as the film’s protagonist with a convincing performance as the feisty, no-nonsense, lawyer. She breaks these dominating moments apart with genuine motherly exchanges with Hirut and solitary vulnerability in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Difret is not without its shortcomings. It’s falls prey to narrative tropes, but is an above average effort for a first-time director and is one of the few ready for market Ethiopian films to date.
The world took note when the film was released in 2014. Bolstered by a ringing endorsement from Academy Award winning actress Angelina Jolie Pitt, who also served as executive producer on the film, Difret went on to win the Audience Prize at The Sundance Film Festival and the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Controversy doesn’t fall far behind a film depicting such polarizing subject matter. The film was banned twice leading up to its theatrical release in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government suspended the release of the film following an injunction filed by Aberash Bekele, now 32, stating that the film, based on her life story, placed too much emphasis on Meaza Ashenafi’s role, while also opening her up to reprisals. The case was settled out of court and a re-edit of the film, crediting Beleke’s story as the source material of the film is currently being circulated.
The family of one of Bekele’s lawyers also filed an injunction claiming that the role of Etagegnehu Lemessa (now deceased) was severely diminished and that the story gave, “distorted and untruthful accounts about the lawyer who defended Aberash falsely portraying Meaza Ashenafi, and ignoring Etagegnehu who battled for the Aberash at the court.”
During a special panel discussion following a screening of the film at the American Film Institute, Mehari responded to inquiries concerning the balance between creative license and remaining true to the lived experience of the people portrayed in the film. Mehari said: “The film is not a documentary, I was telling a story that everyone in Ethiopia already knew about. I tried to take the angle in the film to find the moments that are not in the documents, to create a collective consensus of all of the feelings occurring around the country at that time.”
Mehari also got into a heated exchange with one of the audience members who claimed that the film’s portrayal of “telefa” stigmatized tribal traditions and unfairly lumped other regional practices of abduction for marriage in with the brutal acts that Bekele was subjected to.
When asked more directly about the film’s banning and backlash from some detractors Mehari replied, “people make the claims that they make, and we’ll see if they materialize. It’s not something you prepare for.”
Difret adeptly captures the panoramic complexity of traditionalism, equal rights, and a country wrestling for control of its soul. Mehari made the film for Ethiopians, but the subject matter and visual beauty struck a chord with international audiences.
Difret will be showing at AFI Silver Theatre through Nov. 4th featuring special Q&A segments after select showings with the cast and crew.