Dragging Ethiopia into the modern age, Zeresenay Mehari’s Difret is a compelling account of two women fighting the strong arm of patriarchy.
Sex And The Cityby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
From To Kill A Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men to Philadelphia and Erin Brockovich, courtside cinema has long offered an outlet to directors in the United States to air social grievances and deconstruct popular prejudices. Now in Ethiopia, Zeresenay Mehari’s Difret depicts a pivotal moment in its recent history, unfurling the true story of a 14-year-old girl who’s abducted, raped and then put on trial for murdering her aggressor. And like all good courtroom films, Difret is about more than just one isolated case – it’s David versus Goliath (here in the form of the Andinet Women Lawyers Association suing the Ministry Of Justice) but also a landmark trial that reevaluates its values of freedom and whether a man’s life is worth more than a woman’s and outlaws outdated customs and attitudes. Deceptively simple, Difret offers a nuanced look at conflicting relationships in Ethiopia – of both men and women, tradition and modernity. And with its title meaning in Amharic both “courage” and “the act of being raped”, Difret pays tribute to the desperate bravery of the victims standing up against tradition.
It’s 1996 and three hours outside of Addis Abeba, 14-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is abducted on her way home from school. It’s a customary practice in Ethiopia to kidnap a bride when refused permission by the bride’s father, and after beating her into submission, her would-be groom rapes her. The next morning, Hirut manages to escape with a rifle, and when he and his pack of friends spot her leaving, they chase Hirut into the forest, where after an altercation and a warning, she inadvertently shoots her aggressor and kills him. About to be killed in accordance with tribal justice, she’s rescued by a civilian police force who take her to the village police station, where she’s found by women’s rights lawyer Meaza (Meron Getnet). But caught between her basic desire for freedom and the demands of tradition, Hirut must find the courage to stand by her actions and fight for her right to be treated equally.
A quietly devastating dissection of the Ethiopian legal process, Difret exposes the detail of the country’s timeworn misogyny, from the (frankly ludicrous) suspicion that Hirut is in fact a well-developed 18-year-old woman to the police’s determination to block Meaza’s attempts to take Hirut to hospital for her injuries to be examined. With a contemptuous look from the DA or a request for proof of age in a land without birth certificates for the poor, the police send Meaza off on wild goose chases, assured that traditional male justice will prevail. And yet, outside of this structural inevitability, there are also well-intentioned judges who listen to the defence’s plea for time to find witnesses in a community set against Hirut, and even the tribal court, briefly reminiscent of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, rules in favour of Hirut’s banishment rather than death. In the end, for both courts it’s a question of whether a man’s life is worth more than a girl’s – a sentence that even the traditional, rural court can no longer uphold.
But while Difret is largely a film about the rights of women to choose their own husbands, to live singly in the city (despite the sideways glances) or even to not know how to cook – Zeresenay Mehari’s film isn’t just a women’s lib film. It’s also a film about Ethiopia’s slide into the modern age, as the legal system is shaken up for good, with the backward Minister of Justice replaced with a more progressive figurehead and judges casting aside the tradition of bride kidnapping. And while Mehari skimps over the legal intricacies of the case, Difret is also a charming tale of a girl’s education, an intelligent girl uncovering the dizzying possibilities of the city with its bustling anonymity and high-tech refrigerators, and quietly heartbreaking too, as Hirut’s victory is overwhelmed by anxiety for her younger sister, condemned in all probability to suffer the same fate as the rest of her sex.
But of course, thanks to some media attention, some friends in high places and some forward-thinking judges, Hirut’s case becomes a tipping point in Ethiopian culture. And it’s a moment in time beautifully captured – particularly by Meron Getnet who brings a sisterly warmth and determined courage to her role as the feisty women’s lawyer Meaza. And even if the acting is sometimes lacking and the narrative is at times vague or too reliant on familiar clichés of lawyerly hubris and bar-stool despair, Difret is nevertheless a gently persuasive and vitally important story of one country stepping up to the mark. It’s just surprising it took so long for this groundbreaking trial to make it onto film.
Difret is released on 6th March 2015 in the UK