Difret: Sundance Review

Difret Film Still - H 2014

Difret Film Still - H 2014

A quiet and powerful drama, based on a true story, that relies on familiar storytelling tropes.

The debut feature of Ethiopian director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, which has Angelina Jolie on board as an executive producer, is headlined by local star Meron Getnet.

A rural Ethiopian girl’s kidnapping acts as a wedge between local traditions and the rule of law in Difret, the feature debut of Ethiopian writer-director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari.

Based on a true story that occurred in 1996, the film recounts the far-reaching consequences of the marriage abduction of a 14-year-old girl from rural Ethiopia who tried to escape her fate and ended up shooting and killing her kidnapper, a man who followed a traditional practice for obtaining a bride. The girl, facing a possible death sentence, was subsequently defended by a female lawyer from the capital who argued, in a court in Addis Abeba, that her actions were in self-defense.

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Quite powerful despite relying on familiar storytelling tropes, this issue-driven drama, presented by executive producer Angelina Jolie, should be welcomed at festivals worldwide after its bows at Sundance and Berlin, though theatrical engagements will be rare.

Hirut (Tizita Hagere), a 14-year-old schoolgirl, lives in a village three hours outside of the capital and is the middle of three sisters. Her eldest sister, conspicuously never seen, fell victim to the tradition of telefa, or abduction for marriage, and one day, on her way back from school, Hirut similarly finds herself surrounded by a group of men on horseback who take her away with the intent of marrying her to their leader, Tadele (Girma Teshome). After he rapes her -- more inferred than shown onscreen -- she manages to escape with a rifle, which she subsequently uses when the men discover she’s gone and come chasing after her.

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Hirut and her story would have probably remained unknown if it weren’t for Meaza (Meron Getnet), an Andinet Women Lawyers Association counsel who assists women who wouldn’t otherwise have access to legal protection and representation. She hears about Hirut’s case on the radio and presents herself at the rural police station where the young adolescent’s held, simply stating she’s her counsel. But when she gets to see Hirut, the shy and clearly shell-shocked girl has to admit to the stranger she doesn’t even know what a lawyer is. 

The local police chief (Moges Yohannes) and assistant D.A. (Brook Sheferaw), both men, are clearly not used to having to deal with a woman, and one from the city at that, and they try to obstruct Meaza’s work. However, she’s the kind of person who doesn’t take no for an answer and at a certain point even decides to sue the country’s minister of justice in order to avoid what she sees as a grave injustice -- namely that Hirut has to become a victim of the fallout of a situation that was created without her knowledge or consent.

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Mehari, who also wrote the screenplay, structures his true story as a two-pronged narrative that’s as much about Meaza and the tireless work of her organization as it is about Hirut and her specific plight. Indeed, Meaza is the stronger and more compelling of the two characters, not only because she’s the adult and a headstrong doer but also because Hirut, after having shot the man who wanted to be her future husband, retreats into her shell and becomes an entirely passive character (she has no knowledge of her own rights or the legal system and even a ringing phone in Meaza’s house scares her).

Young non-professional newcomer Hagere isn’t the most expressive of actresses, which doesn’t help either, and the fact Getnet, a popular film and TV actor in her native country, is simply mesmerizing as Meaza is both a blessing and a curse in the sense that her showmanship only underlines how the rest of the cast is mostly just adequate.

Apart from a couple of scenes where the editing strangely avoids bringing the action that’s been building up to a logical conclusion, the technical credits are fine, with cinematographer Monika Lenczewska playing up the contrasts between the city and the country, which clearly represent the loci for a fair legal system and traditional arrangements, respectively (coincidentally, Difret is only the fourth Ethiopian film ever to have been shot on 35mm).

The title means “courage” or “to dare” in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, though it can also refer to rape.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Haile Addis Pictures, Truth Media
Cast: Meron Getnet, Tizita Hagere, Shetaye Abreha, Mekonen Leake, Meaze Tekle, Tefari Alemu, Girma Teshome, Brook Sheferaw
Writer-Director: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari
Producers: Mehret Mandefro, Leelai Demoz Zeresenay, Berhane Mehari
Executive producers: Angelina Jolie, Julie Mehretu, Jessica Rankin, Francesca Zampi, Lacey Schwartz
Director of photography: Monika Lenczewska
Production designer: Dawit Shawel
Music: David Schommer, David Eggar
Costume designer: Helina Desalegn
Editor: Agnieszka Glinska
No rating, 99 minutes