The compelling "Difret" is a small film with a lot on its mind. Authentic and affecting, this drama about fighting against the Ethiopian tradition of abducting young girls into marriage is potent enough to be that country's official Academy Award submission and gain the support of Angelina Jolie as an executive producer.
Director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, who also wrote the film's Amharic-language script, is a graduate of USC's film school, and the strength of "Difret" is in that particular combination of classic storytelling and cultural specificity.
Based on an actual incendiary legal case that was a sensation in Ethiopia a decade ago, "Difret" not only deals with an abhorrent practice that is still going on, it provides a dramatic yet nuanced window into a culture we almost never see.
For as Mehari said in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won the World Cinema Audience Award for drama, "Difret" (the word means "to dare" but can also refer to rape) is a work without specific evil-doers. "If there is a villain in my film," he said, "it's not a person, it's the tradition."
This ability to encapsulate multiple viewpoints is critical for presenting the different strata of a country of multiple divides, not only between the traditions of rural life and the mores of the modern metropolis of Addis Ababa but also the differing attitudes toward women and justice that exist even among the country's educated elite.
Before any abduction takes place, "Difret" introduces its central character, attorney Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), a confident woman who heads an organization in Addis called the Adinet Women's Lawyers Assn. that successfully advocates for the rights of women and children.
Meanwhile, in a village three hours from the capital, a 14-year-old girl named Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is walking home alone from school, enjoying the good news that she has been promoted from the fourth to the fifth grade.
Suddenly, a group of mounted horsemen appears, literally swoops Hirut off the ground and, after congratulating one another, imprisons her in a hut. There, one of the group sexually assaults her and then announces happily, "You will soon be my wife."
This tradition of abduction into marriage has been widespread in rural Ethiopia, but Hirut has other ideas. Gaining control of the man's weapon, she shoots and kills her kidnapper. His friends attempt to kill her on the spot, but though the local constabulary intervenes and imprisons her, the general consensus in the area, as one policeman says, is that "she is going to pay with her life."
Meaza hears about the case and attempts to help the girl, but nothing about this situation proves to be simple. For one thing, the police and local assistant district attorney are hostile to Hirut, initially keeping her from medical aid and even claiming that she is 18 rather than 14.
Other complications arise from the girl's family, subsistence farmers who don't even know what a lawyer is and worry about the possibility of a ruinous feud with the dead man's family if they take legal action to defend their daughter.
One of "Difret's" strengths is the care it takes to present many of Ethiopia's traditions in a respectful way. One of the film's key scenes shows the village assembly in Hirut's area carefully debating her case, and when Meaza attempts to leave a meeting with Hirut's parents without staying for a meal, she is brought up short by a mother who insists, "you must not forget our culture."
Also complex is the personality of Hirut, who turns out to be a young person with strong and definite ideas of her own that do not always jibe with the lawyer's.
Though the outcome of this case helped change the law in Ethiopia, the reality on the ground still has not been transformed in all areas, and that is what filmmaker Mehari hopes will happen when "Difret" screens in Ethiopia.
"The cycle has to break at some point," he said at Sundance. "What you have to do is educate. I hope this film will go a long way toward changing thinking." It's hard to imagine a film this persuasive doing otherwise.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills