Zeresenay Berhane Mehari – Director and writer – Difret
Festival section: Panorama
Ethiopian filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari talks about his feature film DIFRET, which was presented in the Panorama section of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.
In Addis Ababa, lawyer Meaza Ashenafi has established a network providing poor women and children with free legal representation. Courageously, she stands up to all manner of harassment from the police and male members of the government. However, she really goes for broke when she takes on the case of 14-year-old Hirut who is abducted and raped on her way home from school and shoots dead her tormentors as she escapes. Accused of murder, Hirut may face the death penalty even though she was acting in self-defence – for in rural Ethiopia the tradition of ‘Telefa’ or marriage by abduction still exists. Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, who was born in Ethiopia and educated in the USA, filmed this 35mm production – only the fourth to have ever been made in his country – in the official language, Amharic. The word ‘difret’ has two meanings: ‘courageous’ but also ‘to be raped’. Based on actual events, the film enquires about the nation’s possible emergence into the modern world and about what happens when centuries-old traditions are broken and belief systems are abandoned.
Reporter: Matt Micucci
In Ethiopian, the word ‘difret’ has two contrasting meanings – it means courage but also the act of being raped. This is a haunting starting point that serves a strong purpose in setting up the tone of the film by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari that aims to uncover the dangers of some Ethiopian traditions.
The one addressed in this particular feature draws inspiration from the true story of a sixteen-year-old girl who killed one of her abductors after she had been kidnapped to become the wife of a local man in the village against her own will. With the law of the land on her kidnappers’ side, a woman lawyer comes to the girl’s rescue despite her situation looking near hopeless as the shadow of an almost certain death sentence consistently hangs over her and time is running out.
Not many films from Ethiopia make it to the international circuit, with most of its features meant for escapism and geographically restricted to the home country. To its credit, Difret not only exposes a heavy theme and issue that remains trivial in most parts of the world, but has a unique universal feel that extends further than its representation of the singular case it portrays. It could in fact be read as an invitation to revisit some ludicrous and nonsensical bigoted and worrying traditions that still unthinkably exist to this day in what should be more ‘developed’ country and that seem to significantly slow down the evolution of mankind to a state of zeitgeist maturity.
Despite all this, Difret never heavily points the finger at the individuals but rather singles out ignorance and the stubbornness of institutions as the real culprits in this story. This is quite evident in the scene of the meeting among townspeople where the matter at hand is being debated. Most almost naturally side with the kidnappers, and as the family of the killed one shouts for revenge – a daughter for a son – the claim is met by much consensus.
A strong thematic presence of female empowerment can be felt throughout Difret, as we find the central character of the lawyer strong and a member of an organisation that aims to protect women from discrimination and violent acts they are forced to endure.
Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s film also looks beautiful, and much of the credit for the stunning visuals can be attributed to the choice of shooting on film rather than digital, a choice that always makes a difference and reveals a warmer and beautiful side of the landscape of Ethiopia. It’s clear that the filmmaker is also willing to reveal the harshness of his hometown’s setting out of love, and not merely to denounce the country as an underdeveloped mess. In fact, other traditions that are referred to in the film – such as the need to offer lunch to whoever visits one’s home – shows warmth and a hope for the future than may also lie in the country’s past.
It is only occasionally that the narrative structure of the screenplay stutters a little too ruggedly towards the end, however it can be understood that as the film’s story got a little more complicated, it could easily have become confusing had the director chosen to show all the intricate developments in a realistic light. What is important about Difret is that it is successful at establishing a credible and rewarding emotional and psychological connection with its audience, a factor that strengthens the film’s important thematic aspects in a very satisfying way.