Zeresnay Berhane Mehari’s film Difret picked up audience awards at the Sundance, Berlin, and World Cinema Festivals before becoming Ethiopia’s official submission to the upcoming 87th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. With an executive producer credit going to actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie, Difret is based on a real-life story that explores a custom still practiced in parts of Ethiopia despite modern laws against it. Three hours outside of Addis Ababa, a bright 14-year-old girl named Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is on her way home from school when a group of men on horses swoop in and kidnap her. After being attacked during the night, the girl finds an opportunity to grab a rifle and attempt to escape but she ends up shooting and killing the man who had planned to marry her and winds up in jail. In Hirut’s village, the practice of abduction into marriage is an accepted custom. Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), a tenacious young lawyer, arrives from the city to represent Hirut and argue that she acted in self-defense. Meaza’s legal aid organization faces an uphill battle as they challenge this Ethiopian tradition.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with writer/director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, the real-life Meaza Ashenafi, and Tizita Hagere, the impressive young star of the film.
Meaza Ashenafi: No, I was very happy about it. To be honest, when I first met Zeresenay, I was not at all sure that he’d be able to make this film. I know that doing something like this from scratch is very difficult but he persisted and it happened. I never dreamed early on that the film would be such a huge success. And the actress who plays me, Meron Getnet, is so talented.
Tizita, some of the scenes in the film are violent and difficult to watch. Was shooting them very difficult?
Tizita Hagere: It was a little difficult but Z made everything easy for me.
Had you ever acted before?
No, this was the first thing that I did.
Wow! What was that casting process like?
Zeresenay Berhane Mehari: Finding Tizita was such a blessing — I don’t think this film would have been what it is if not for her. We saw thousands of girls over an eight-month period. Having spent five years developing this story, I had this picture in my head of what this person was going to be like. But, you know, we don’t really have roles for young people in Ethiopia so we don’t have any trained actors at that age. That made it that much harder to find someone who could carry such a huge emotional role. We printed 5,000 flyers and passed them out in elementary schools and finally, about two weeks before we had to begin shooting, we found Tizita in the very school where I had gone. I knew the minute I saw her. I gave her some sides to read, about three and a half pages of one of the most emotional scenes and told her to come the next day to read in front of the camera. When she got there I thought she had lost the sides but she said, “Oh, I don’t need that.” She had memorized everything.
It was such a great performance. Do you think there are still people in Ethiopia who would defend the practice of abducting girls into marriage?
Meaza: Oh yes, there are many people who would defend the practice. That’s all some people know, it’s a very old tradition.
I can only imagine the resistance you faced when you first started your organization.
It’s true, and you can see some of that resistance in the movie. When we started, if we’d go to the police to report a rape case, the first thing they’d ask was, “Was she a virgin?” If she wasn’t, they wouldn’t even listen. And if a woman was assaulted we’d take her to the police station and they’d ask, “Is she married?” If she was, that was seen as a kind of license to be abused. We’ve come a long way since then but you know, in our language, Amharic, there was no phrase for “violence against women,” there was no term for “sexual harassment,” we had to coin new words for these things.
Wow. Is this now a topic that politicians and Ethiopian leaders talk about?
Yes, it has become an issue, we have a ministry that’s dealing with gender and social issues and our constitution now has a very good provision that talks about international standards for the treatment of women. During the years when I was the head of our organization, at least four major laws were amended. So yes, there is a debate in the country but it is not enough — we still have a lot of work to do to raise awareness and to implement the policies that are in place.
Zeresenay, did you come up against any resistance to telling this story when you were shooting the film in Ethiopia?
Zeresenay: Not really, other than some logistical challenges that you’d have in any production. I found that people wanted to tell their stories, especially when we were shooting in the villages. We had very few trained actors in the film — there are 71 speaking roles in the film and most of those people were first-time actors or not actors at all.
Was anyone worried about presenting this view of Ethiopia to the outside world?
You have to remember that in some circles this is a totally accepted tradition. So the fact that I wanted to show it was welcomed — they don’t see it as a crime or as violence. Later on it became an issue in some quarters, with people saying, “Why do things like this always have to be in our films? Why can’t you make a story about our kings and queens?” But we had a very good run in Ethiopia — the first four weeks you couldn’t even get a ticket, it was sold out. It was amazing, we were in every newspaper, and all over radio and television. We were happy to re-ignite the conversation about this tradition and we also found that the film opened doors to talking about other issues.
Angelina came on after we shot the film. You know, when you make a film like this — an issue film from Ethiopia that’s not in English with a first-time director and unknown actors — it’s not that easy to get the film out there! Thank God our producers thought about that and got the movie to Angelina. We just wanted her to see the film but we got very lucky. She called us and said she thought the film was amazing and wanted to know how she could help.
That’s great. Even though I think when some people see her name they might think at first that she directed the film herself!
I know! Even in Ethiopia people were calling it “Angelina Jolie’s film!” But that’s not such a bad problem to have.
Are these abductions still happening in Ethiopia?
Meaza: Yes, they are still happening in some villages but not at the same level.
Zeresenay: I think we’re much more educated about violence against women now thanks to the work that Meaza’s group and other organizations are doing. They’ve kept these issues as part of the national conversation.
Meaza: And the film will help a lot with our outreach.
Zeresenay: You know, there are big parts of the country where there is no electricity, much less movie theaters. So we are planning to take the film to the villages and use it as a tool to start a conversation. We’re going to take it on the road for a year and go to every village in Ethiopia. But we’re not going to go there and say, “This is what you should do,” we know that it has to come from them.
I thought the scenes in the film involving the village council were handled very sensitively.
It’s very easy to point your finger and demonize people but that doesn’t really help anything. We need everyone to be part of the solution.
Meaza: The tension between customary practices and modern law is very much present not only in Ethiopia but in many African countries. There are many issues that involve women’s right and children’s rights. We just need to continue these important conversations.
Tizita, have you now been bitten by the acting bug? Do you want to continue making films?
Tizita: Oh yes, definitely. I want to be a star!