What is the difference between the abduction of a young girl in a village and the “abduction” of a film by a young filmmaker in a capital city?
“DIFRET” is an Amharic language feature film based on a “true story” of a teenager named Hirut (Tizeta Hagere, depicted in Sundance poster above) who is a victim of the inhuman and barbaric practice of “telefa” or abduction of “child brides” in certain parts of Ethiopia. (The word “difret” has multiple meanings including “courage”, “the act of raping a woman and dishonoring her, and “insolent audacity”.) The film is written and directed by Ethiopian filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and executive produced by Angelina Jolie. DIFRET won the 2014 Audience Award at both the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. The film has been screened in various locations in the U.S., Europe, South Africa, Israel and Australia. (For a fascinating YouTube discussion of DIFRET with filmmaker Zeresenay and commentary by extraordinary young Ethiopian women and others, click here.)
According to a review in Variety, DIFRET is the story of a teenage girl who was “walking home from school one day [when] she’s abducted by seven armed men, one of whom had already been refused her hand in marriage. Locked in a hut, she’s raped that night by her ‘suitor,’ then manages to escape the next day with his rifle; in terror, she shoots him dead when cornered. And no matter that Hirut has been raped and beaten, local justice decrees that she be executed for murder (then buried with her victim).” (The barbaric crimes of “telefa” or abduction and rape of teen girls and child marriages are tolerated and condoned not only in parts of Ethiopia but also in many other parts of Africa. (Fifteen of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriages are in Africa.) Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), an indefatigable lawyer who had founded her own legal aid group takes up Hirut’s legal defense. The film is said to show the underlying tension between civil and customary law and the subjugation of rural women in certain parts of Ethiopia.
By all accounts, the film is not at all political or critical of the regime in Ethiopia today. It does not sideswipe or portray the regime in bad light. According to the Sundance Film Festival, “Ethiopian-born writer/director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari portrays, with panoramic beauty, the complexity of a country’s transformation toward equal rights, featuring the courageous generation that dares to own it.” A review in the Huffington Post observed that the film depicted the way in which Hirut and her lawyer Meaza, “succeeded in their legal challenge to telefa, the ancient Ethiopian practice of abduction into marriage. The film about Hirut’s case marks a courageous moment that opened a new and better chapter in Ethiopian history.”
In March 2014, filmmaker Zeresenay explained why the Ethiopian premiere was delayed for several months. It appears Zeresenay wanted to have the world premiere of DIFRET in Ethiopia but was completely overtaken by the sudden and wide international acclaim the film received from the very beginning. Zeresenay explained:
[We] finished cutting the film in the winter [January 2014] and right after that we were accepted at Sundance; and we had to go to Sundance. And five days later, we were in Berlin. So we didn’t have time to actually go to Ethiopia because we wanted to do it proper… Proper means actually having an opening, a premiere, acknowledging the actors, the people who helped make the film, and inviting people that are interested in the media and film and people close to this issue.
Zeresenay kept his word and arranged for a “proper Ethiopian premiere” in September 2014, but he was completely blindsided to the oncoming train wreck. He had simply underestimated the bottomless depravity and vengefullness of the thug regime in Ethiopia. In an interview with film director Roger Ross Williams at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, Zeresenay was asked if he was concerned about the potentially controversial nature of DIFRET if shown in Ethiopia, implying that it could be banned. Zeresenay was fully confident there would be no problems at all.
Williams: This is a serious issue [child bride abductions], a complicated issue. It is probably going to be controversial in Ethiopia.
Zeresenay: This is a true story that happened and the people have participated and voiced their opinions when the case was televised and on the radio and in the newspapers every day. I don’t think we are going to have any trouble in bringing the story alive again. It is not even a concern for me. If it would be a concern, the only thing that I might think will be a little bit of a challenge for us is to be able to have the audience get into a different style of film making… I have a good feeling about it.
Zeresenay simply did not understand the perverted thug mind. He naively believed the thugs in power in Ethiopia operate in a rational mindset and will actually let him show his film in the country. He was overly optimistic. So the young Ethiopian filmmaker was left to contemplate the wisdom of the verse of the old Scottish poet Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes of Mi