Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: “Difret” is a human story that changed the social and legal system in Ethiopia, regarding child marriage [interview]

The African Film Week opened its doors in Athens on February 25th at the Greek Film Archives. “Difret”was among the films that were screened; a film inspired by the true story of a 14-year old girl, Hirut, that was kidnapped by the man who was destined to become her husband and whom she killed while trying to escape. In her village, the practice of kidnapping for the purpose of marriage is common and one of the oldest traditions of Ethiopia. A young lawyer defended her and they both entered into a conflict between tradition and human rights.
Speaking to EmbassyNews.net, Ethiopian director Zeresenay Behrane Mehari said he was ispired by a “simple, human story of two young women coming together”. However this particular case raised public awareness and helped change the social, legal and political system in Ethiopia regarding child marriage.

Interview to Eleftheria Pantziou

Question: What motivated you to make “Difret”?

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: For me it was simple. As a writer and a director you are drawn to human stories and emotions. The incident took place in a time, when things were very difficult, in 1996. I had already gone to the US to study, so I wasn’t there when it happened. I got back in 2003 and in 2005 I met Meaza Ashenafi, the lawyer who represented the girl.
When I heard the story, I was really blown away because it was actually about a young girl – 14 years old – who basically said “no” to this type of abuse… It’s a tradition in Ethiopia but she said “no”! And the guy abducted her anyway. And then, while trying to run away, she killed him. She went to prison and then she became the first person to be acquitted on the base of self defence. That by itself is a very interesting story for a writer. And the more I studied it, the more I found out about the roles that the judges played and the roles that the neighborhood played and how much things have changed in society and the legal system.
At first I was afraid. I was thinking, “will I be able to do justice?”, because this was not a story from a long time ago. People were alive and they knew exactly what it was about. I really couldn’t get it out of my head. A couple of years went by and I was still thinking about it, still writing. It took me about five years to write the script. Once I showed it to Meaza Ashenafi, she agreed, and then I basically stopped everything else and started looking for financing. For me it was a simple, human story of two young women coming together and changing the course of the legal direction in Ethiopia. It’s a big enough story for me!

Question: What did the girl – the main character of the story – had to say?

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: She wasn’t in Ethiopia when I was trying to make the film. When the court set her free, the villagers wanted her dead. She had to go on exile. She went to the Middle East and worked as a maid for 5 years. It was after I finished the film and it was screened in Berlin, that we found out she was back.
When she saw the movie, she was blown away! She said: “I thought people would never think of me!”. She is an activist now, helping other girls from becoming victims, like she’s been.

Question: Were you concerned about the way people would react in Ethiopia, after watching the movie?

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: The tradition of child marriage is a very dividing issue. If there is a culture, a tradition that harms people, then for me it changes to violence. A tradition is supposed to support or enhance all sides. It cannot support one side of the society and harm the other. I know my stand point and I know how I want to tell the story. This is why the lawyer’s story was much more interesting for me to get in. I did not want to have my position out in the film. I wanted to withhold my position and I wanted to give to the audience the entire perpective; the villagers’ side, the lawyer’s side, the girl’s side. No one really asked her how she felt about this tradition.
People through time have arrived into their own anwers and decisions to basically admitting that this is not one of the best traditions and that we shouldn’t practise it. And it is outlawed by the government. So, we can have a sober conversation and this is what I want this film to do. It’s the tradition that is the “bad guy” in the film, not the people. So, when people ask me, “who is your antagonist?”, I say “the tradition itself”!

Question: It’s been 20 years now. How is the situation today?

Meron Getnet - "Difret"
Meron Getnet – “Difret”

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: Saddly, it still happens. According to statistics about 30-40% of girls still get abducted, even though it’s against the law. The reason is, I think, because we are not doing a very good job in protecting our women. The government is doing a magnificent job in the rape and workplace abuse issues but this one is a bigger “monster” to tackle. So, it’s the lack of enforcement, the young girls do not know their rights to defend themeselves, we don’t teach them that this is something that is not supposed to happen. So, when it happens they don’t go to the authorities. And the young boys are not educated in a way to basically not go along with this practice when it’s their turn to get married. This is not a tradition only in Ethiopia, but also in other places around the world.
I think that collectivelly we’ve failed to somehow change our perspective about women. This is happening near my home, I have a 14 months old daughter. If things cannot improve, who knows what’s going to happen later. It’s a very big issue that disturbs me all the time. It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a country’s issue, it’s a world issue and the big mandate is to stop child marriage. The Ethiopian government has said it will stop it by 2025, which is a good step.

Question: What was the response of the audience to “Difret”?

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: We got into so many different festivals. It was very interesting to see people reacting to a film from Africa. And what is more important for me is that it’s not only a film from Africa. It’s actually a film made by an African, which is a lot different. We have many films from Africa, but most of the time we don’t get the chance to tell our own story. So, I think the trend now is that more and more Africans get a chance to tell their story. It is also important for the viewers to see a side, they had never seen about Africa.
Also filming is a big business and it takes a lot of money to make. I do understand that you must have a profit, see a return in investment, but in most cases stories do not have market viability. I can’t make a film about Ethiopia and Greece and actually expect people to watch it. We saw that with the distribution of “Difret”. In some places distribution companies would not work with us because they said no one would come and see an African film. It’s kind of dissapointing. If it is a good film, regardless of where it’s from, people should be able to watch it.
However we managed to have a worldwide distribution. The film was released in the US and in Europe. The distribution was much more difficult in the US. But people, the community spoke – and I don’t mean just Ethiopians or the African community. Most of the viewers were not from Africa. And all the audience awards that we won, kind of motivated the distributor to market the film.
It’s funny, it was a redemption for us because we won the Audience Awards in Sundance and then in Berlin continuously. I think the audience is much more sophisticated today and people watch a lot of different flims from different places.

Question: Actress Tizita Hagere, who played the girl, was actually very young. How was it working with an unexperienced actress – a child for that matter?

Tizita Hagere - "Difret"
Tizita Hagere – “Difret”

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: The role was very challenging even for a trained actress. That was the toughest part, while making the film. I literally moved to Ethiopia for 8 months and we were looking for her. We saw 3 thousand or 4 thousand people before we found her. We make a lot of films in Ethiopia. The way we make them is a lot different than how I wanted to make them. So, getting an actress to understand the way I wanted to make this film, was a bit difficult. I saw many non – actresses or first time actresses. If you don’t find the right person to communicate the story to the screen you lose the audience. After 8 months of searching, I had given up.
Two months before we started shooting I returned to New York and I told them that I would stop the movie. But I kept looking. Two weeks before we started shooting my casting director took me to my elementary school in Ethiopia and there she was! I walked in and I saw her. It was the winter season and her first week of acting classes. She was just doing it for fun. She wasn’t thinking of becoming a professional. She just wanted to go to an acting school. It was complete fate!
When you see her on the film, she is amazing! I did not add anything to her. She was amazing during the audition, she was amazing when we were rehearsing, she was amazing when we were shooting the fillm. I’ve worked with younger actors but I’ve never worked with a person like her. She is a natural!

Question: How did Angelina Jolie get involved in the film?

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: We met after I had finished the film and we were about to send it out to festivals around the world. My wife is also my producer and she thought that this film needed an Ambassador, a person to represent it. It was my first film, it was about a tough issue, a very good film but it would die if people didn’t talk about it.
I talked to my executive producer about it, she knew how to get in touch with Angelina Jolie. We sent her a DVD and a week later she called me on my cell. She said: “I am Angelina, I really liked your film. What can I do to help?” She is a very convicted person, about where the world should go and what we should fight for. She is also a very good actress and film maker. She loves art equally as her human rights work. Films like this could really bring about a change. We talked for 45 minutes and we knew exactly where we were and what we wanted to do. I asked her if she could represent the film as an executive producer and she said “yes”!

Question: The premier was in 2013 at the Sundance Festival and the film won the Audience award. What is next?

Zeresenay Behrane Mehari: It also got the Audience Award in Berlinale and in Amsterdam and in other festivals. We are distributed everywhere. You can now find the film on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon. We were Ethiopia’s submission to the Oscars. So, I think “Difret” could become a great tool for education. We want to make it available at every school in Ethiopia and also have discussions and debates at schools and also within families. I’d be very happy if this continues to be an example on what can happen if people truly put their mind to it. That’s my hope!

PHOTOS: Greek Film Archive