A 14-year-old girl runs joyfully across a field, celebrating her advancement to 5th grade at her rural Ethiopian school. Suddenly she’s surrounded by a half-dozen men on horseback, one of whom grabs her and lifts her onto his horse. As the men gallop away, the girl’s face turns to terror. Left behind in the grass are her books, the pages flapping in the wind.
So begins the remarkable film Difret, based on a true story from the 1990s about a girl who was kidnapped to be a child bride but, in running away from her captors, ended up shooting to death her would-be husband. Such an act of marriage through abduction—which includes raping a girl until she’s impregnated—actually has a name in Ethiopia, telefa, and is considered cultural tradition in some parts of the country. But “tradition” is too-often cover for gender discrimination, and telefa is an act that completely removes girls’ power and forces them into being wives and mothers before they’re ready for either.
The film so impressed actor/director Angelina Jolie—whose adopted daughter Zahara is Ethiopian by birth and “could easily have been victim to this crime,” as she recently wrote to the director—that she signed on as one of the film’s executive producers. She went on:
When I first saw this film, I was moved to tears by the story. I couldn’t believe what I was watching—what these young girls have been subjected to. But those tears of sadness became tears of joy as I watched … how they fought back, and in turn what they have done for countless other women.
Writer/director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, who is Ethiopian but attended film school at the University of Southern California, got the idea for the project after meeting lawyer Meaza Ashenafi, who defended the girl against murder charges and went on the offensive against telefa itself. “I was really moved by the work she’s done and the organization she started [the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, a pro-bono legal services group],” Mehari told Ms. “It was unbelievable to me that this was still going on.”
While developing the film, it was suggested to Mehari that he cast it with an American actor (Halle Berry was mentioned) and produce it in English. “But I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I took the easy way out,” he says. Instead, the filmmaker kept uncompromising control, shooting the film in Ethiopia with an Ethiopian cast.
Playing the challenging role of the scared-but-determined young girl (called Hirut in the film) is Tizita Hagere, who Mehari found at an amateur acting workshop in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The director wanted to know if she would fight back if someone took something from her, and she said no. “But her eyes told me something different,” says Merhani. Hagere, who wants to be a doctor, now adds “actor” to her list of career goals, and after her powerful, restrained performance Jolie calls her “my new favorite actress.”
By the way, the Amharic word “difret”—which remains untranslated on the film’s posters—means “the act of being raped.” But Amharic is a complex language, and words have multiple meanings. Another common meaning of the word captures the true spirit of the film: “courage.”
See the Difret website for information about screenings in your area.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, Getty Images
Michele Kort was senior editor of Ms. until her passing in 2015. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage