In “Difret,” 14-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is kidnapped while walking home from school and forced into marriage by an older man she doesn’t know — and who’s willing to do whatever it takes to break her down so the teen will become a docile wife and captive. But Hirut says no to this long-standing tradition in her village — and kills her abductor, putting her on trial for her life. A brave female attorney (Meron Getnet) takes her case and fights to buck these archaic traditions in an emotionally powerful Ethiopian film based on a true story.
“Difret” producer Mehret Mandefro talked to Women and Hollywood about why she felt it was important to talk about tragedy in terms of change, how Angelina Jolie’s involvement in the film changed its trajectory and how the child-bride-kidnapping problem is much more common and widespread than she’d previously thought. (Freja Dam transcribed this interview.)
“Difret” is now open in theaters.
W&H: Talk about your journey with the film, how you’ve taken it all over the world at festivals and now have an U.S. release. You’ve had it released in other countries?
MM: Yes, the U.S. release is the last one.
W&H: How many countries has it been released in?
MM: I’ve honestly lost count. I think 20. At Sundance, we got picked up by international distributors. It changed everything, and they got it much wider than we ever thought was possible. It’s really because how wide it got outside the U.S. that made us rethink how we were going to do our U.S. release. Foreign-language films in the U.S. don’t do well; it takes a distributor who is willing to partner with the filmmakers. In our case, we were so hands-on with this project. It was a labor of love and our baby. I wasn’t going to give it to a distributor who wasn’t going to do anything with it, especially after having experiences with other distributors around the world who actually were thoughtful in the marketing and had feelings for it. That made us a lot choosier with what we were going to do with the American territory.
W&H: Why don’t you explain to us the logline of this movie “Difret?”
MM: “Diftret” is a feature narrative about the legal precedent in court cases about the kidnapping of child brides. The story is told through the lawyer who fought the case, as well as the 14-year-old girl who essentially ended up killing her abductor, would-be husband, and has to stand in trial accused of murder.
W&H: How did you become involved with the story?
MM: The director brought the film to me back in 2009. He had a beautifully written script and approached me to produce it. I read the script and was blown away by it.
W&H: So it took you several years to raise the funding for this?
MM: Yeah, we had some generous offers in Hollywood on the script, and we could have easily filmed it. But they wanted it done in English, they wanted famous actors, they didn’t want us to shoot in Ethiopia and it was a very different film than what we had in mind. We said no to all that, which meant we had to piece together the financing in a very creative way, and that took around three years.
W&H: It’s such a Hollywood response. We want to make the movie, but change every single thing about it.
W&H: It’s an incredibly difficult story. As you put in the logline, it’s about a murder, but it is also spectacularly beautiful and hopeful. I guess that would be one of the biggest challenges that you had as filmmakers. How do you take such a topic and make such a gorgeous, hopeful film?
MM: Thank you for saying that. I think this is to director Zerensay Berhane Mehari’s credit. He’s born and raised there [in Ehtiopia], and I think his entry point on the story is super-interesting. He grew up with this whole abduction-marriage situation, and he never really thought about it. He didn’t think it was all that bad; he just took it for granted. When he heard about this case, he met the lawyer and he realized, “Oh, I’m part of the problem,” and that became his entry point for trying to tell a story.
You don’t need to make a film to say kidnapping child brides is bad — you need to make a film to show how change happen, and how complicated it can be, and what that culture looks like on the inside. And I think that became his goal. It was also about not demonizing the very people he was trying to communicate with. I think walking those two lines is how he got to a hopeful narrative.
W&H: Angelina Jolie is an executive producer. How did she get involved, and has her presence on the film helped you get wider distribution getting taken more seriously?
MM: We had finished the film and finished financing and were a couple of months from premiering it. I was talking to one of our executive producers, Julie Mehretu. It was Julie’s idea really. All these beautiful films get made that never see the light of day. A film like ours, a foreign-language film from Africa, there are a lot of barriers in what people think is beautiful. Julie suggested we reached out to her. We had a mutual friend who could get the film to her, so we sent the film, and quite frankly, I didn’t think anything about it.
A week later, she ended up calling and said, “What do you guys need, I loved this film, I would love to support it.” At that point, financing was done, so we asked her to put her name on it and help make sure the film gets seen. I can’t even remember how many outlets picked up the press release that went out about how she signed on as executive producer. Automatically, people pay attention when her name is added to it. It’s definitely helped getting it to a wider mainstream audience.
W&H: Has the film been shown in Ethiopia?
MM: It had a six-week run in the capital city. We’re gearing up for a wider release in the rural areas. We want to take the film on the road. We’re hoping to do that in January. The feedback has been very positive.
W&H: Were you surprised that it was positive?
MM: By that point, we had already screened at a lot of places and Ethiopians were there, so I wasn’t. Before the premiere, I was a little worried. This is a recent case. A lot of people remember it. Some things have changed, but not all things.
W&H: Are there still child marriages?
MM: Yes, 20 percent of marriages happen still under those terms in Ethiopia, and quite frankly what we learned is that it’s much wider than Ethiopia. Parts of Russia and Eastern Europe. Places you wouldn’t imagine. Thirty-nine thousand girls are married every day too young in all parts of the world and often under violent conditions. Unfortunately, it is still happening. In the village where this case happened — so 10 years after it happened — there were no abductions. But it’s creeping up and on the rise [again], even in that area.
W&H: When people come out of the theater, what do you want them to be thinking about?
MM: That culture can change. I think sometimes people think that there are these things that can’t change — that traditions can’t change. And I want people to realize that actually culture can change if individuals are willing to challenge it. We made a film about Ethiopia and a very specific case, but obviously the way that culture harms women and girls is relevant to any country everywhere. In 2015 things should be changing, but it requires people to take action and to be creative enough to do that.
Learn more about the film at Difret.com