Difret a feature film by Ethiopian writer-director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, and executive produced by Angelina Jolie, recently screened at the 2015 Athena Film Festival. Based on a riveting, true story, the film explores the conundrum of whether a country should dissolve counterproductive traditions and embrace progress.
Mehari subtly shows that oftentimes, such dissolution brings with it risks and power shifts. When the change is about neutralizing a repressive male supremacist culture and creating a more productive, women-centered society, the transformation is hard won. Historic paternalistic attitudes which promote sexual and physical violence against women remain deeply embedded.
The conflicting currents of tradition and progress play out in Mehari’s ineluctable account of a heroic 14-year-old Ethiopian girl who was ritually abducted on her way home from school. This was a kidnapping that resulted in a death and created a media circus that set the country on a controversial path that inspired many to denounce entrenched sexist, local traditions and make them illegal. The tradition of abduction into marriage, or telefa (abducting child brides), one of the oldest in Ethiopia, had obtained for centuries, regardless of whether women approved of it or not. It was celebrated in rural areas, though the capital of Addis Ababa, and other cities of Ethiopia were gracefully stepping into 20th-21st century lifestyles. How do tribal custom and modernity coexist peacefully side by side? In Difret, award winning Mehari reveals that when a tradition’s time has come to be overthrown, it cannot continue to coexist peacefully with the rising tide of cultural and social progress. It breaks of its own weight of injustice.
As Difret opens, Mehari quickly familiarizes us with the rural and undeveloped village where Hirut Assefa (Tizita Hagere), lives with her family and enjoys attending school. Hirut is confident in her studies and wins awards. Her future shines with promise. Her sister has been married according to traditional ritual, the abduction marriage. Whether Hirut is apprised that this may happen to her one day the filmmaker does not clarify, which makes the unfolding events more frightening. Though her sister has been taken away, Hirut plans to continue her schooling with her parents’ consent. She has ambition and will live a life beyond what village tradition offers for women: keeping house, having children and being the stalwart rock of the family unit.
The “adventure” and “thrill” of telefa is embraced by the men of the village. Tadele, (Girma Teshome), who unbeknownst to us has been scoping out young girls, finally has selected one to be his; he will kidnap her regardless of her parents’ wishes and his friends will be a part of the exciting day. Mehari creates the scene of the abduction with fine, crisp editing that effects tense undercurrents. He pans to the men; they appear on horseback like brigands, an unsavory ferocious-looking gang up to no good. We are unclear about their specific intentions until we realize the connection with Hirut, who is in the sites of Mehari’s camera as much as she is in the sights of the men and specifically Tadele who will sense the moment to attack when his prey is most vulnerable.
Hirut, is an obvious innocent. She is the typical school girl who is demure and unsophisticated. As she finishes her school day, she says goodbye to her friends and heads home in contentment. It is at this juncture when Tadele and his friends surprise Hirut like predators in the hunt. They gallop upon her with yells and whoops. In a flurry of movement and frenzy of sound, Hirut is lifted up. She struggles, terrified, screaming. Though she fights her captors, it is to no avail against the men who outnumber her and are stronger. It is a sad fact that no one would come to her rescue since this is ritual and she has been “chosen.” Her terror fuels their excitement. It is part of the game, the adventure, the thrill. For Hirut it is the most horrific event of her young life, the antithesis of romance and pleasure.
The gang of abductors, ebullient with their successful capture celebrate with cheers as they take her to a remote area and leave her with Tadele. Tadele has taken on the anointing of the conqueror and is full of swagger. Mehari has staged him to appear something akin to a gang leader; it is part of his role in the ritual. Hirut cries in helplessness and frustration, and we feel great empathy for her as two men forcefully take her inside the dingy place prepared for the bride and groom. Tadele pushes her down. Mehari cuts to the men laughing and talking. However, we understand that in this interim, Tadele has raped her. The rape, not only a malevolent act of violence is symbolic for what it means to this young girl. It is an annihilation of her identity, innocence and confidence; it drains her power, reducing her to nothingness. On the other hand, the ritual as it is meant substantiates Tadele’s prowess and stature.
All of the images that Maheri suggests in the way Hirut has been forcefully taken, in the assured stance of the men and in Tadele’s arrogance and bravado, exhibit the sexist and oppressive culture that extols this act that is supposed to be identified with manly heroism. Tadele’s behavior and the ritual also manifest from this day onward how the marriage and the roles of the husband and wife will be enforced. Unequivocally, Hirut, cow-like, has been marked as Tadele’s to be subservient to him. As she is no longer a virgin and no other man would have her since she’s lost her innocence and has been spoiled, telefa signifies her destined connection to him for life.
After Tadele has “taken her in marriage,” she is on the ground, a limp dishrag. Mehari focuses his camera on Hirut’s (Tizita Hagere does a fine job with these difficult scenes), response cluing us in to her emotions of pain, misery, terror at Tedele’s barbarism. We see her honor, dignity and self-hood draining into humiliation and disgrace on her face. Her body language is expressive; she crumples with shame, she cringes into herself. She is in shock; her school clothes are in disarray, her arms remain close and curled up by her sides in a protective position. All these actions reveal his brutality injured her. Mehari and actress Hagere want us to understand that Hirut is overwhelmed physically, emotionally and spiritually. She is stunned by the savagery of telefa which is the men’s right and due, justified by centuries of practice. From their perspective, she was selected and she should view this as an honor. The violence of her rape and the injury to her being is of little consequence. She will serve him, care for the home, bear him many children and prosper the family with her substance, or she will surely pay for it with blows. As for Hirut’s future ambitions of school and a career, they are disappeared with this act like her identity, her chastity and her self-respect. Tadel is empowered by her dehumanization.
Tizita Hagere gives a compelling performance in revealing Hirut’s confluence of feelings and her great, dark horror and fears of what she has lost. Unlike her sister and others who have been dominated and remain submissive to their captor, she wills another plan for herself and cannot passively stay with Tadele and take whatever happens next, (which is continual raping until he impregnates her). She will flee and return to her life with her mother and her family where she will become Hirut the young innocent once more. In her desperation to run from her fate, Mehari makes clear that she has chosen to repudiate Tadele and the male traditions of suppression and savagery toward women. This is an act of self-determination to reclaim her former life and her future. But if she never escapes, she will never be able to heal and restore herself to her former emotional, physical and mental state. Living with him she will be forced to daily repeat the atrocity until she is numbed and enslaved as a wife. It is the intense fear of remaining lost in horror with Tadele and her impassioned faith that she has to return to her former life that make her pick up a gun in Tadele’s shack. She will defend herself against his coming to rape her again.
The fact that Hirut wants no part of telefa and rejects Tadele outright is a revolutionary notion in this rural village. Mehari doesn’t belabor this point, and if one is not careful, one can miss this crucial understanding which solidifies the next action Hirut takes. It is her willingness to regain her old self and remain in freedom away from Tadele and male oppression, that forces her to run away and if necessary, kill him to protect herself and her future. Seizing an opportunity, Hirut manages to escape with the gun when Tadele’s back is turned. When Tadele discovers she is gone, he and the men come after. She shoots him, forever ending her bondage to him. She has taken her stand. The shot is mortal and Tadele dies.
When his friends see what the conquered has done to the conqueror, they are outraged and blood must let blood; they debate whether to slit her throat on the spot. However, they know they are safe with the village court controlled by men; no man will absolve a women of killing a man. The public trial will shame her and her family and be a warning to all women. Her audacious and inglorious “murder” as a response to the honor Tadele had bestowed upon her will be vindicated. Her rebellion against the patriarchy and village law will be answered by justice and the law will punish her with death. Hirut is dragged off to the village prison: her life is over, her death is inevitable and her parents are distraught beyond tears as the men and Tadele’s family uplift Tadele’s righteousness and denounce her wickedness.
At this point the setting shifts to the modern city of Addis Ababa and we understand the panorama of this nation and the conflicting cultural mores between city and rural locale, modernity and ancient rites. Without fanfare, Mehari subtly introduces the second hero of the story, Meaza Ashenafi, (Meron Getnet), an Andinet Women Lawyers Association counsel who Mehari shows in action as she settles a domestic violence case, directly making eye contact with the husband who has beaten his wife. Meaza forcefully tells him he must control his temper and not harm his wife or he will lose his job. Meaza is beautiful, lawyerly, confident and empowered, all the things that Hirut could have been if she had gone away to school, released from the bondage of her local village traditions. From Meaza’s tone, demeanor and attitude we are relieved to see that here is a woman who is competent and has a no nonsense approach as she assists women who, but for her, have no access to legal protection and representation in cases involving violence against them. Meron Getnet is superb as Meaza who stands unflinchingly for women’s rights and ceaselessly works on behalf of Hirut to break down the male power structure through the ritual of telefa that has turned women into little more than submissive, suffering beasts.
In this segment Mehari chronicles the difficulties Meaza confronts as she comes up against the supercilious attitudes of the local male officials, police chief (Moges Yohannes) and assistant D.A. (Brook Sheferaw), who continually obstruct her because she is much more competent than they and she is a woman whom they feel should be subservient to them. Meaza will have none of being pushed around. She even brings an injustice suit against a higher magistrate and wins. She knows constitutional law and understands how tribal culture works hand in glove with the local village laws. She also knows that this is not a case of murder, but of self-defense, and she realizes that she must be perfect in her presentation and her diligence because not only is Hirut’s life at stake, but women’s self-determination and empowerment are on trial as well. Meaza has been able to assert her own rights as a woman using the laws to break customs that have destroyed women for centuries. She knows how to battle and she will win, throwing aside her personal life if she has to. She knows her life is a symbol and it is only made worthy if women are seen as worthy by men in the culture, in the cities and in the rural countryside.
How Meaza takes a stand for Hirut and for all women against the practice of telefa is thrilling to watch in the courtroom scenes. These scenes unfold with quiet power thanks to Mehari’s cinematic subtlety which has been misinterpreted as not being dramatic enough. Mehari brings the drama in showing how Hirut and Meaza break a normed and historical tradition of rape and sadistic cruelty in a male construct which allowed hatred, gang behavior and infantilization to be lifted up.
Mehari’s film is a succinct, unvarnished view through another male’s perspective which in itself is amazing, considering he is Ethiopian. Through his lens, he whispers that males must put away the baby toys which celebrate “heroism” and bravado by committing atrocities on young girls and women. He suggests if boys/men are to be considered manly, it should not be at the expense of raping emotionally and physically defenseless young girls who have everything to lose in their person-hood and future by such actions. This is not bravado, this is dehumanization. And the ones most soul-violated by such acts are the sadistic bullies themselves.