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An Ethiopian story. A Conversation with Zeresenay Berhane Mehari

Under the direction of Leonardo De Franceschi

Talking with the director of "Difret"

The 22 January will be the day. “Difret”, the first work by the Ethiopian-born Zeresenay Berhane Mehari who seduced first Angelina Jolie and then the audience of Sundance Film Festival and other important international film festivals will be released in Italian theatres. This time, Italian filmgoers will be able to watch the film even before than the French or the Belgian ones. Here you can read our review of the film, written when the news of the acquisition of the rights was not yet come.
“Difret” has not the complexity and subtlety of “Timbuktu” by Abderrahmane Sissako, nor its astounding visual power, just to mention what was “the” African film in 2014, but has the great merit to face a social drama in the tradition of nationalistic African cinema with an approach attentive to Ethiopic audience, possibly didascalic but not blackmailing nor self-consoling, mobilizing human and technical energies borrowed from local film industry.
Enjoy our interview with the director.

You were born in Addis Abeba and moved to US to study film at the University of Southern California. Which models had you in mind as a filmmaker? Did you know Haile Gerima’s work?

I grew up during a communist dictatorship in Ethiopia and as a result there were only Bollywood and Russian propaganda films. I didn’t develop any idea for a model or style until I went to film school. In my freshman year, I discovered the works of Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Bergman and many more. And then I quickly fall in love with cinema verite and the stories of the common man.
I didn’t know Haile Gerima’s work until I was a third year student.

The subject of “Difret” came to you apparently in 2005 when you were introduced to the attorney Meaza Ashenafi by her brother, discovered the case of Hirut Assefa and the tradition of “telefa”, that is the use to abduct and rape teen girls as a way to induce them to accept a forced marriage. What moved you the most in Hirut’s story and what finally convinced you that this one would be the subject of your very first feature?

I found out about Hirut’s case while doing research on Meaza Ashenafi and the work of her organization. My entry point was Meaza and I knew that I wanted to tell her story and her work in connection with the first free legal service NGO in Ethiopia. Then Hirut’s case being the biggest case that the organization represented and the relationship that Meaza and Hirut formed during the case and Hirut’s courage to stand up to centuries old tradition made me tell their story.

Which were the main obstacles that forced you to start the shooting only in September 2012?

Securing the fund was by far the main obstacle. I had a chance to make the film multiple times but each money came with a condition that I was not ready to give into. For example in 2009 I had a chance to make the film but the producers wanted to make the film in English and have a known American actor to play Meaza’s role. It was important for me to make the film in Amharic and have Ethiopian actors depict all the characters.

You filmed in 35 mm but you chose all the same to involve in the production about 50 Ethiopian crewmembers. I know that in Ethiopia there’s a flourishing production of low-budget films realized and distributed locally on the Nollywood model, the actress and poet Meron Getnet had acted before in films made in Ethiopia. I had the impression that you took from that model at least the idea to focus at first on the local audience, not trying necessarily to please the selection committees of film festivals and film critics. What was your relation to film industry in Ethiopia and your expectations about the possible audience for a film like “Difret”?

Yes, that’s right I made the film primarily for the Ethiopian audience even though the model I followed was not the Nollywood model. I have always wanted to show Ethiopian filmmakers and audience that we can make a film with the highest standards. I have worked in the local film industry off and on since 2003. I was one of the first people who helped start the local film industry. We have made a great stride as a country where we make 125 films a year today.

In the structure of the plot I was impressed by the way you use the rhetoric of ellipses. The dramaturgy of the story lead the viewer to expect that things will go necessarily bad for Hirut and Meaza but then, at the very last moment, something happens that reopens the possibility of hope. Please tell us more about the structure of the script and the work you did on the two main actresses.

In the beginning a lot of people who read the script felt like it was confusing that the film has two protagonists. They were also worried that the film didn’t have a clear-cut antagonist. Both concerns come from one way of structuring a film. However, for me it was important to have the audience actively participate in traveling the journey. These women, who are from two different worlds, were fighting two different fights in that particular case. So the outcomes were different as well. Meaza felt like she won by getting Hirut acquitted on the bases of self-defense, but for Hirut the victory was bittersweet. Yes, she is free but she can’t ever see her family again. I had to structure the film in a way that included the competing events. As for working with the two lead actors, my approach was to spend more time on the script and talk about each scene in relation to them or some one in their family. I wanted them to take it personal and discover the emotional element of each scene from their current state of mind or life style as oppose to the words and set up of the script.

The film was premiered at Sundance in January 2013 and is having an incredible fortune in film festivals all over the world, winning audience awards at Park City, but also in Berlin, Amsterdam and Montreal, and the film has been bought in several film markets to be distributed worldwide. Do you think that the presence of Angelina Jolie as executive producer has been decisive to this fortune, or rather the universal appeal of the topic of the fight against child marriages?

There is no question to the influence of Angelina Jolie opening doors for this film. But I’d say the audiences’ acceptance of the film and it’s multiple awards speaks to, as you said, the universal appeal of the issue in the film and the great performances by they actors.

In September 2014, the official premiere of the film was blocked in Ethiopia by the authorities and the film apparently had to surmount two lawsuits before being released and find the local success it deserved. How do you explain the local reactions that faced your film in your country?

The legal challenges the film has encountered stems from an organized effort to discredit Meaza’s work and legacy on the case we chronicle in the film. Human rights lawyers are often not popular in the countries where they challenge the customs and traditions and Ethiopia is no different. The film was initially banned for allegedly giving "too much credit" to Meaza but there was no legal grounding for the claim nor was it valid so the ban was lifted. The film subsequently enjoyed a successful theatrical run in Ethiopia and kicked off its educational outreach efforts that are focused on raising awareness about the issue of child marriage.

The word “difret” in amharic has multiple meanings, from courage and audacity to dare to the act of raping a woman and dishonoring her. Could you say some more about that?

Amharic is a complicated language filled with double-meanings. The word difret in its widest use means courage, but in its secondary use it also means the act of being raped. Of these two meanings we believe the film speaks more to the courage it takes to change traditions and customs which is why we named the film difret.

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