Difret is a film inspired by the true story of two Ethiopians, a young girl named Aberash Bekele and her lawyer, Meaza Ashenafi.
Bekele inspired the character Hirut, a 14-year-old girl we follow in the film as she bounds home from school. The mood shifts as she’s surrounded by a band of men on horseback. She’s taken to a hut on the edge of town where she is raped. Later she sneaks off — grabbing her captor’s rifle — but he follows her into the woods. Cornered, she turns to face this man who hopes to be her husband and pulls the trigger.
With that shot, she interrupts one of Ethiopia’s oldest traditions: the violent practice of Telefa, where men rape and abduct young girls into marriage.
Hirut is arrested and charged with murder. Ashenafi, the founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers' Association, rushes three hours from the capital to take the girl’s case. Her trial eventually leads to a strengthening of Ethiopia's laws against child marriage.
Despite the gains chronicled in the film, the ancient tradition of Telefa is still prevalent.
Difret's producer, Mehret Mandefro, and her husband, the film's writer and director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, are both Ethiopian. It was important for them to take a critical look at their culture's transformation, but without demonizing tradition.
“There are multiple people who came up to us after seeing the film saying 'I thought this was a story about another horrible thing about Africa and what happens to women.' And at the end of the film they come out sympathetic to the men because they don’t know better,” Mehari says.
“That’s why I think film is powerful at teaching empathy,” Mandefro adds. “It can put you in another persons shoes without judging them. And solutions start to look different. When you’re judging people all the time, certain solutions are closed off. This film provides an entry point where you can actually kind of see that maybe you can change it.”
What Difret captures is how solutions came from within Ethiopia — not from outside organizations or initiatives. For Ethiopian-born, New York-based painter Julie Mehretu, that’s what makes Difret a powerful piece of art.
“This is a really intense topic, but it's a topic that really requires an in depth examination and cultural specificity. It's an amazing thing to have an Ethiopian male feminist take on this story and articulate this narrative of amazing Ethiopian women,” she says.
Mehretu and her partner Jessica Rankin, along with Angelina Jolie, supported the film as executive producers. After reading the script, Mehretu and Rankin provided funds to get the film into production.
“It’s not just that this is a bad tradition. That is something that you don’t need the film to tell you. It shows the complexity of tradition and culture and evolution and change, and it shows the self-determining aspect of human beings, this desire for resistance from within,” Mehretu says.
The movie explains the global importance of self-defense for women, explains Kathy Bonk, executive director of the Communications Consortium Media Center. She has spent the last 30 years leveraging media to change domestic and global policies affecting women, children, and families. Difret’s message reminds her of The Burning Bed, a 1984 made-for-TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett as a woman who'd been abused by her husband for many years.
“She put gasoline around her husband’s bed, and lit the fire and killed him. And it really sparked the domestic violence movement in the United States because this woman was acquitted,” Bonk says.
Both The Burning Bed and Difret ask the audience to grapple with difficult questions like: Who's at fault, and how far is too far when it comes to abuse of women and girls? And finally, what difference can a film really make?
“It's the viewing of the film and also the conversation that takes place afterwards that equals, basically, a consciousness-raising moment so that both the men and the women, the mothers and the fathers, the girls and the boys come together and have an opportunity to express themselves about the destructive impact that something like an abduction of a young girl has. And if a film can spark that conversation that's certainly a step toward culture change,” Bonk says.
Ethiopia has a rich tradition of public debate and discussion, which is celebrated most notably in a scene from Difret depicting a traditional Ethiopian community court, where a group of men are gathered together under a shady sycamore tree to discuss how to respond to the tragedy that has befallen their community.
The filmmakers are hoping to initiate a similar discussion when they tour their film throughout rural Ethiopia this spring with pop-up cinemas — basically a large suitcase with a projector, a screen, a speaker, and a portable power pack. The film's director, Mehari, is unashamed to admit this set up is all a set-up.
“Whether you like it or not, if I go into a village and if I say to the local government or local leaders that I want to gather people to tell them about violence against women, I promise you no one is going to come. If you want to show a film, regardless of what it’s about, they are going to come out and see it. That will open up a conversation, hopefully,” he says.
A conversation about the treatment of women and girls, that includes women and girls.
And that’s what producer Mandefro wants to start tracking: how the conversation about Telefa begins to change in Ethiopia. “Ending Telefa is possible,” she says. “It’s not this thing that you have to accept will go on forever and ever. So for people to think that; that would be the victory.”
A theatrical release of Difret in the United States is slated for the spring of 2015.