Reviewed by Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
A village in Ethiopa, 1996. As 14 year old Hirut is walking home from school, she is kidnapped by a group of young armed men. One of the men rapes her and leaves her to sleep on the floor of his house. She has fallen victim to a tradition still observed in rural Ethiopia at the time: Men kidnap and rape girls they want to marry, overthrowing the family’s refusal to give their daughter in marriage. But Hirut is a brave girl, steals her abductor’s rifle, runs away and ends up shooting and killing him when the men run after her.
While Hirut is in police custody, lawyer Meaza Ashenafi hears of the case and immediately decides to take it on. She runs a not-for-profit law firm in Addis Ababa, helping women and girls. Meaza now has to fight against both the local police holding Hirut in custody and the village men wanting to enforce customary law. Debating under a tree, they stop short of the death penalty and decide to expel Hirut from the community, albeit knowing the police have taken the matter out of their hands already. Meaza boldly faces arrogant police and state officials. When the officially appointed doctor insists she is lying about her age, alluding to his having “examined” her with a grin, she bluntly replies “you can’t just assume she is eighteen just because she has developed breasts.” and leaves the men baffled.
Meaza is the driven, workaholic epitome of an idealist modern woman, sacrificing her personal life in favour of fighting for the cause and only rarely showing any other emotion than confidence. Actress Meron Getnet does succeed in turning Meaza from a heroic role model into a more relatable person, but ultimately Difret suffers from this kind of stereotypical classification of its characters. As it does from its very traditional way of storytelling: Every step is explained in dialogue, the purpose of every scene in the story is clearly visible.
However, director Zeresenay Mehari makes sure not to stereotype neither the villagers nor the city dwellers too much. Even when justifying Hirut’s kidnapping, the village men are taken seriously and not vilified as monsters, their perspective is heard. And the village population is shown as a real society, with a culture of debate and different viewpoints.
Despite predictable storytelling, the story itself is compelling enough to still make the film worthwhile. That and the performances of Meron Getnet as Meaza and Tizita Hagere as Hirut. Scared and sad Hirut feels completely lost in the world of the city and shyly asks Meaza if she is not married because she is a bad woman. She just wants her old life back that has been so abruptly taken from her. But there is, of course, no return, and Tizita Hagere adds a tenderness to Hirut’s coming-of-age storyline to confront the dominant violence she has to face. Her predominantly sad and quiet performance is complemented by Meron Getnet who is simultaneously bubbly and defiant, and the chemistry that develops between the two female leads makes up for a lack of development of the characters themselves.
Difret is based on real events which could be seen as a turning point in Ethiopian legal history, but the tradition of kidnapping girls for marriage is still a controversial subject in Ethiopia today. Although the film has missed out on the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it has been very popular with Festival Audiences and has won the audience award at both Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival 2014 – despite its flaws, it is a compelling story highlighting an important issue.
Difret is on release from March 6th.