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12/15/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

DIFRET: An Intimate Film of Profound Political Consequence

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Writer/Director Zeresenay Mehari with Meaza Ashenafi at the screening of DIFRET on December 9 in Los Angelesre

DIFRET is only the fourth feature film to be made in 35mm in Ethiopia and is this year's Ethiopian submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It tells the story of a young girl of 14, abducted for marriage, in a tradition that goes back centuries in rural parts of the country. After being raped ("having her virginity taken") by her abductor, to claim her for marriage, she escapes and shoots him with his own rifle. Then the girl is put on trial for murder. For it is unthinkable for a woman to kill a man.

In a case that set a new precedent in the country, the girl was acquitted -- but only due to a ceaseless and sometimes dangerous campaign by her attorneys, led by the real-life Meaza Ashenafi. A campaign that included dodging bullets and suing the Ministry of Justice when it suspended their right to practice law.

But what's most moving about this film is not the political message: it's the intensely personal and intimate portrayal of the characters' struggles and challenges. Too often political debates (and political films) get lost in abstract discussions of "structures" and "institutions" of power. They get trapped in, and trampled by wonky, think-tank language.

Such words pale in their power to communicate, compared to the picture of a young female lawyer facing down a rural police officer. In that scene, political power is given a face. It is a person. And he wants to kill a 14-year-old girl. Standing against him in his office, with its dirt floor and missing windows, a woman refuses to let him. There are no law offices with expensive drapery. No bustling police precincts with legions of bureaucrats.

That scene is refreshingly barren, and it forces one to recognize that political structures and institutions, as well as cherished cultural 'traditions,' only have as much power as we choose to give them -- or only as much power as their adherents can take by force. Throughout the film, in scenes like this we are reminded of the intensely intimate and personal nature of political struggle. Person against person. Not belief against belief.

A belief cannot hold a political office. A belief or a principle cannot sign a death warrant. A belief or a tradition cannot commit rape. And a belief cannot put her life on the line to save a child. People do those things.

So, please ignore the pedantic reviewer at Variety who saw only "clunky narrative," and implied that the film would only be meaningful to a politically motivated audience.

What this film does extraordinarily well is bring "political struggle" down to a human scale. It lays bare both the ugliness and triumph of such struggles. And it is well worth watching to remind ourselves -- as we are subjected to the endless drama of Washington and other places around the globe -- what it's all about.

In this case it's one girl. One life. One lawyer. Against individuals who would crush that girl with the weight of generations of tradition. It could be any one of us. On either side. It is well worth watching, and reflecting, on that very personal reality.

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Q&A session after the screening

The day after the screening I had a chance to meet and talk with both the writer/director Zeresenay Mahari and the subject of the film, noted attorney and prize winner Meaza Ashenafi. Below are lightly edited transcripts of our chat...

Meaza, you mentioned after the screening that you had been working so hard, non-stop, for so many years, that you had little time to reflect. But that seeing the film gave you that opportunity to do that. What kinds of reflections keep coming back to you as you look back on these experiences?

Meaza: One thing is the human connection. Beyond running this professional organization I am touched by peoples' stories. And this particular case [of Hirut] comes out very clearly in terms of that personal connection. I heard about this case on the radio and we decided to take it up -- and [the agency does not] decide to take up every case. We counsel women; we guide them; we draft memoranda and submit them to the courts; there are seven lawyers working under me. But with this particular case, we knew it would be instrumental in changing the culture of abduction.

But when we brought the young girl from the rural area, she did not have anywhere to stay. So I brought her to my apartment. Now, last month a European journalist asked me, why did you keep her at your home? For me, I did it with pleasure. Why wouldn't I? And so that personal connection with this young girl comes out very strongly in the film.

Secondly, I think about the challenges, especially when our organization was suspended. It was risky for me to continue to push. The organization was suspended for six weeks and we were not sure where it would end up. My family were normally very supportive of what I do. But at that point they were very much concerned. But there was no way for me to close down the organization and walk away.

Did people try to convince you to walk away?

Meaza: Some of my family members, yes. Because they were very concerned for my safety. Those are the kinds of flashbacks that come to me time and again.

And of course I think about where we are now. Because this is unfinished business. Just last week before I came to the U.S., a young girl of 16 was killed because of gang rape in Addis Ababa, and for 19 days nobody knew about it because it was not reported. So that's why we have to continue the struggle. This is unfinished business and violence against women is a very entrenched problem.

After the screening, Zeresenay was talking about abduction as 'violence disguised as tradition,' a tradition going back centuries to which this young girl said no. And while making this film, Zeresenay said he kept coming back to the question of what makes people stand up and say no. But he could just as well have been talking about you. Where do you get your strength, and what made you say no -- over and over again -- to the political and personal intimidation you faced?

Meaza: That is a good question but I don't know how to answer it. The women lawyers association was established because there was a need. We had a new constitution in my country, and we women lawyers got together and decided that this would be a very good entry point for us to do something about women's issues.

And that organization turned out to be a symbol. A 'brand' in the fight for justice and gender equality. So I was very protective of this organization, because in some ways it actually started in my house. And the success of the organization was overwhelming, because there was a need. We pushed for legislative reform. We established pro bono legal aid centers, not only in the capital, but also regional centers. And we put the issue of gender equality on the table front and center. So the organization became a very powerful symbol. We did not want to retract any of these successes. That's why I think I decided to push ahead.

But when you are standing face to face with someone who is the face of the establishment, who is trying to intimidate you into going away -- like the police chief, or the DA -- you said no.

Meaza: Exactly. But I don't know exactly why. Maybe because when I was growing up as a little child, and only four years old, I was sent to school with my brother because my parents thought I could protect him from being bullied around by the other children. They believed that, "Meaza can protect him." So to some extent that has always been in me to be a protector.

So what would you say to women, or anyone, in a similar situation? Because there are many people in similar situations around the world, struggling to find the fortitude to say "no" to the intimidation.

Meaza: I think it's about your commitment. If you have a passion for a particular issue or agenda, you just have to follow that passion. And you have to continue to push. You might be challenged. You might even fail. But you will learn something from it. And you can always get up and continue. So if you have that extra passion then what I would say is just don't be afraid.

But that's the trouble isn't it? Getting past that fear? When you were facing down that police offer trying to get this injured young girl out of jail, what made you keep going?

Meaza: Even when our organization was suspended, I told my colleagues we cannot stop working. We just have to continue receiving our clients, and we just have to keep providing the legal aid that these women need. Again, I think it's the commitment that drives you. If you have that passion and commitment, you don't even recognize the danger, or that the danger is imminent. If you have that strong commitment you will continue because backing down is not an option.

Beneath this story about women's issues and gender equality, there is a larger story here about justice and liberty and self-determination -- values that apply to a wide range of social struggles around the world at the moment. How broadly to do you see this story, and how broad would you like audiences to think of it?

Meaza: The particular case of Hirut is the plot of the story, but for me the story is much much broader. It is about the political space. And about freedom of association. Freedom of speech. It's also about the changing role of women in my country, and in Africa generally. My mother never learned to read or write because she was never sent to school. The generation after that became nurses and teachers, and that was their success. My generation is demanding to participate in the political space. And I hope this will inspire the next generation to do even more and even better.

It's also about justice. It's about the instrumentality of law, and how you can use law to transform society. That comes through as a strong message in the movie. So it's quite broad. And it's a composite story of what a small group of women lawyers have done over eight years to make a difference and make an impact.

And looking back, are there any things you would look on differently or do differently?

Meaza: No. That was a very rewarding time of my career. I was young. I was focused. I was working like a machine. As I said last night, I got to the office at 8 a.m. and left at 9 p.m. and I never minded that. Later on I had my two girls. And I don't remember taking more than seven days maternity leave. I brought the girls to the office in a basket. [laughs] And the nanny is sitting there in my office while I am breast-feeding at my desk. I "found" myself. And now I work with the United Nations, and that is wonderful too. But I work at a different level. So I would not change anything in what I have done.

In terms of gender equality, what is the role of economic progress for women, especially in Africa? In the film, after Hirut is taken, her father decides to take his youngest daughter out of school and keep her at home to help with the farming. There is a clear link between educational progress and economic progress. What thoughts do you have about women's economic progress as opposed to political progress?

Meaza: I am glad you brought that up, because my latest project involves "inclusive finance."

As I said, my full time work is with the United Nations. But the fact that I am in my country enables me to continue with community work. So in 2009, eleven women came together and decided we could establish a bank for women. It was a tough project, and a very ambitious project. But we did it. It took about four years. And the bank is now running; it is successful; and it is the first bank in the history of the county to pay a dividend to shareholders within the first year of operation.

Realizing economic rights is a key to empowering women to claim other rights.

Zeresenay... In the Q&A after the screening you referred to this event -- the abduction and rape of this young girl -- as "violence disguised as tradition." The story itself is a very intimate portrait of the struggles of two women, but how broad is the underlying message, in terms of challenging social and political traditions? That theme is quite broad, given that violent clashes between tradition and modernity are happening in many places around the world.

Zeresenay: My entry to the story was through human experience, through the experiences and the works of the two women: the lawyer and the young girl who was abducted. And if it was appealing to me to tell a story about such an experience, whatever the specific type of violence portrayed here, I believe that it is relatable to most people. At some level that would make the message quite broad.

As a filmmaker you want your characters to connect with the audience, and you would hope that your audience would have something that they could take away from it that relates to things they know, or things that have happened to them. Then again I also wanted to show that this is something that is accepted and even cherished as a tradition, and that makes it kind of unique. So my question to myself and all of us is: How many other things are there that we accept at face value because your dad did it, or your grandfather did it?

When you see courageous individuals like the women portrayed in the film, and they are interrupting that tradition then it becomes unsettling, right? You are forced into re-thinking those things. And you are forced into changing those things. So I would hope that people would take that broad experience with them when they leave the theater.

In an age of increasing commercialism, and a time when many people feel like their culture is under threat--how does one strike the right balance in between change, and trying to preserve a unique identity and cultural heritage?

Zeresenay: Change is part of the human condition, and I don't believe in traditions not changing. Because as a society you cannot be stagnant. You listen to a different music than your father did, and your kids will listen to different music than you. And I don't think we have control over that. Change is constant. We have to adapt. We have to change. And while we don't all have to become Walmart, or we don't have to buy into commercialism, at the same time it is the global truth right now. And you have to have a certain level of participation in it.

I have a son and am expecting a baby girl who might be coming today or tomorrow. My kids are born here. They are Americans. I came here when I was 19, but I still have a great love and attachment for Ethiopia, and I go back very frequently.

There are intangible things, you know, that when you are there you feel them. I hope we hold on to those things that in some ways make us unique as a culture. Not those things that in the name of culture are harmful, or create a hindrance to moving forward. If tradition becomes a wedge that prevents moving forward, or education, or economic development, then it's not really serving the people.

We have to question what the role of tradition is, first. In the film I tried to show, at certain points, people having a meal together. I grew up with that. We ate from the same plate -- a big plate. There were seven kids in the house, as well as my mom and dad. I miss that now because we don't do that any more. We sit at a big table and we are so far apart from each other, and you take the portions that you want. In the film, in the flashback scenes the only thing [Hirut] thinks about is having that meal with her parents at home. It's comforting, right? Knowing that we are having a common experience. We are going to remember that. You cherish those experiences.

How do you feel about the word "villain?" You made it very clear that the men in the village perpetrated a barbaric crime against this young girl. But you were very careful not to demonize or villainize them. Their story is part of a larger cultural story. How did you approach that very difficult issue?

Zeresenay: It's so easy to portray someone as a monster or demonize them. But that would make the story very one-sided. You would feel like this incident was an isolated issue. That this man, because he was arrogant or barbaric he abducted this girl and did what he did, and then you could even say that he deserved what he got. But then again it kind of misses the point.

I wanted people to examine the question of what makes people do what they do, and especially in this case why is this tradition there? I wanted to frame the film in the context of the country, not necessarily my opinion or how the audience would feel about it. I felt that if I laid everything on the table and people saw it for what it is, then they could make their own judgment.

This tradition is a societal issue, not just a few bad apples who are doing this. You almost have to create a new tradition to replace it, in terms gender relations, or gender equality. So that explains the care for not demonizing the characters, not pointing fingers, or trying them and deciding they are guilty. For me would lessen the whole point of women having to struggle against a tradition. At leach level Meaza had so many challenges and so many set backs, so many obstacles in the form of people. And that's why, for me, the antagonist in the film did not have a face. Actually it had many faces.

You talked about stepping back to question one's own point of view, and the things we take at face value. But how do you engage in productive conversation - and constructive dialogue - with people who refuse to question their own point of view?

Zeresenay: I think by talking about experience. By sharing. There are things we share collectively as a society. If you lived in Ethiopia and you had daughters, and you were one of those men who were sitting in that traditional court under the tree... if that had happened to your own girl, then the decisions that you make in that traditional court also affect your daughter.

So in the film I was trying to nudge the audience into seeing that point, and that men can change as well. Hirut's father let her go to school, and even encouraged her to go to school. He believed in it. That was my way of communicating with the audience that we have to feel connected to these young girls and honor their wishes.

In the Q&A, someone referred this as a "difficult film." What words would you have for people who are thinking of making a "difficult" film -- based on your experience making DIFRET?

Zeresenay: Don't worry too much about what other people are going to respond to about the story. When we were looking for funds many people told us -- experienced people who have funded and made films -- that this was a story that no audience would want to see. And it's very ironic that in the first two festivals we went to [Sundance and Berlin], we won the audience awards.

The word "difficult" I think applies at several different levels. First, it's a difficult issue to talk about. Second, it's a difficult movie to make. That is, it's difficult to take on social issues and strike the right balance of making an entertaining film that captures the imagination of the audience -- without forcing it down their throats or beating them over the head with a social message. The third difficult part is finding people who would believe that in these days of explosions and martial arts fights, that a film that centers on characters, and their trials and tribulations, would be as appealing as those other films for people to want to watch.

But if you feel connected to your story -- and if you trust the story -- and every single time you read the script or hear the story you get that feeling in your belly, then there is no reason not to go for it.

Ultimately what do you want audiences to take away from this film?

To me, this is a movie of hope, and one that I would want to help people start conversations about these issues.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that DIFRET was the fourth feature film to be made in Ethiopia. It is actually the fourth feature film to be made in 35mm film in Ethiopia.