Written and directed by Ethiopian filmmaker Zeresenay Mehari, the drama “Difret” unfolds with striking moral clarity. Its characters are strong — a necessity since the subject matter is downright disturbing, particularly to Western audiences.
Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is a 14-year-old girl from a small village outside Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa. One afternoon on the way home from school, she is abducted by a group of men. One of them rapes the girl, whom he intends to marry. Taking a rifle, Hirut escapes the following morning, shooting and accidentally killing her assailant in self-defense. After the girl is arrested, an attorney and women’s advocate named Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet) decides to defend Hirut, at no cost to her family.
Mehari avoids any sensationalism in telling Hirut’s story. Instead, he lets it unfold like a courtroom procedural. Using a cinema verite style, he never dwells on the times Hirut is in danger. Instead, “Difret” focuses on the impasse between modernity and tradition, between cosmopolitan and provincial lifestyles. The most disturbing scene is one in which the village elders — all men — gather, openly discussing the merits of abduction, as if it’s their God-given right.
The scenes with Hirut and Meaza are gentler and more character-driven. That is where Mehari’s film finds its emotional core, as well as greater nuance.
That “Difret” is based on an actual case from 1996 comes as a shock, indicating that the Ethiopian government apparently tolerated child kidnapping for so long. The film’s prominence is due in no small part to Angelina Jolie, who served as executive producer. Yet “Difret” deserves recognition for more than a famous name. Bride kidnapping remains a problem in some parts of the world. This film is a necessary reminder of what can happen when people preserve tradition for its own sake.
Unrated. At AFI Silver. Contains coarse language,
adult situations and violence, including a rape.
In Amharic with subtitles. 99 minutes.