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Written by Chrisella Herzog, Managing Editor

In the Amharic language, the word “difret” has a double meaning. In its widest use it means courage and the closest English translation means “to dare”. But in Amharic, it also has a double-entendre that means “the act of being raped”.

Ethiopia is not known internationally for its film and art—although that is beginning to change as the country examines its traditional culture and looks towards the future.

Based on a true story from 1996, Difret’s title does not quickly lend itself to explaining this Sundance film’s plot. “Difret” is an Amharic word, already showing a break from the trend in Ethiopian films done in English; “difret” translates to “the act of being raped.”

The movie revolves around Hirut, an energetic 14-year-old girl from a rural village whose life is torn apart in a split second; and Meaza Ashenafi, a courageous, no-nonsense attorney from Addis Ababa and cofounder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association.

On the very day she is promoted to the 5th grade at school Hirut is kidnapped by men on horseback while walking home. Her kidnapper feels no guilt at her fear and no remorse about raping her, because as he explains to Hirut, he plans to marry her. We discover later that he had already approached Hirut’s father to ask to marry her, but her father denied it, wanting Hirut to have an education. Hirut’s kidnapper took instead to one of Ethiopia’s oldest traditions known as telefa, which permits men to kidnap young girls to be their brides—a practice which affects over 40 percent of adolescent girls. Hirut is able to escape her grass hut prison during a moment of distraction, taking her kidnapper’s gun. Her escape is quickly discovered, and while she is cornered, she shoots and kills her ‘husband’ to be. She is only saved from having her throat slit by local police, who take Hirut into custody, planning to only keep her until the court’s arrangements allow her to be killed for her crime.

Meaza Ashenafi hears about Hirut’s story on the radio in Addis Ababa. Meaza created her organization, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, in order to help women who otherwise have no access to legal counsel or even education about the law and their rights. She goes to Hirut’s village three hours outside of the capital, where she immediately begins to fight a legal system that has never allowed a woman to win a claim of self-defense against a man. Even convincing the police to allow Hirut to seek medical attention for her injuries is a several day process, thanks in part to an unsympathetic assistant prosecutor who refuses to believe that Hirut is a minor, and dismisses her illiterate parents’ attempt to prove so with ridicule.

Hirut is finally released to Meaza, who takes her to Addis Ababa for medical attention and safety. Meanwhile, the village council of elders decides that rather than killing Hirut, since she was being protected by the national legal system and was currently out of reach, she will be exiled, never able to return to her home. Hirut’s father, despite an impassioned plea as this was his second daughter lost to telefa, is ordered to pay restitution to the father of the dead man.

At this point, the story diverges into two threads. It follows Meaza through her fight to get the legal system to recognize the injustice done to Hirut in a country struggling with its clash of modern versus traditional values. She is portrayed by Ethiopian actress Meron Getnet as tough and idealistic, a human with hopes and fears and personal struggles. She tells Hirut of her own fight to get an education, how she also had a father who tried to protect her from early marriage; we see her crying in her care after the momentum of the case seems to swing away from her.

Hirut’s portrayal is subtle, but speaks to victims of violence through the different stages of coping with loss and tragedy. At first, while staying in Meaza’s house, she is triggered into flashbacks by the ringing of a telephone, and she flees the house in terror, only to be picked up by police again. She moves shortly after to an orphanage for girls her age, where she spends nights sleeping on the floor instead of in her bed. The pain of being away from her family is unbearable to her, and she demands to go back to her village. Meaza takes her for a very short visit, only to leave while being chased by a mob out for Hirut’s blood. She worries constantly for her little sister—her safety as well as her education after their father pulls her out of school to protect her from meeting the same fate as her two older sisters; however, Hirut knows that this is not enough to protect her sister. While Hirut does open up to the other girls of the orphanage, she holds herself apart, unsure how to relate through the violence that has unhinged her life.

In a post-showing discussion in Salt Lake City, writer and producer Zeresenay Berhane Mehari revealed that his crew had not been able to contact Hirut for her consultation on the film, as her life nearly 20 years later was still in danger, despite her case’s success in shifting the laws on telefa in Ethiopia. They were able to consult with Meaza Ashenafi and the EWLA, whose work helped 30,000 women between 1995 and 2002. Meaza was awarded the Hunger Project Award—known as the African Nobel Prize—in 2003.

When Mehari was asked why he chose to focus on this case, he told The Los Angeles Times, “This case stopped me and made me think. This tradition is part of our culture. If you look closely, you could find family members who have done this. We’ve never seen it as a form of violence. We’ve never questioned that.” In a statement on Difret’s website, he wrote, “Challenging old traditions is difficult. Moving from old to new is never easy. By making this film I hope to lessen this confusion and reveal the ways in which the human condition transcends when belief systems fall apart. Making this connection reveals that the politics of everyday life and how people respond to the many traditions they encounter shape what Ethiopia is to become in the future.”

The film’s struggles with raising money through Kickstarter and accessing rural Ethiopia’s infrastructure—despite the country’s acceptance of the film and willingness to support its production—were vindicated just days before the film’s premiere at Sundance, when Hollywood star and parent to an adopted Ethiopian girl Angelina Jolie signed on as Executive Producer. She said in a statement about the announcement, “This film is a strong movement for art in Ethiopia. It draws out the richness of Ethiopian culture and shows how important legal advances can be made while still respecting local culture. It is a story that gives hope for Ethiopia’s future, and for other countries where countless girls grow up without the protection of laws that shield them and their bodies, and shows how the courage of brave individuals can awaken the conscience of a society.”

Difret is beautiful and heartbreaking, and is likely to receive more attention going forward. More information can be found at Difret‘s website.

DIFRET was shot on location in Ethiopia and had its World Premiere in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival in 2014. The film’s spoken language is Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia.

Synopsis: ETHIOPIA, 1996

Meaza Ashenafi is a workaholic and the founder of an organization that provides free legal aid services to poor women and children in need. As a young lawyer and a tireless advocate for women she operates under the government’s radar until one legal case exposes everything and threatens the survival of her work. 14-year-old Hirut Assefa is abducted while walking home from school by a 29-year-old farmer who intends to marry her. Hirut shoots and kills her abductor with his own rifle, in an attempt to get back to her parents.

Hirut is charged with murder by the local police and kept in prison without bail. She is facing the death penalty though she claims her actions are in self-defense. The news about Hirut’s case spreads like wildfire in the media throughout Ethiopia, and Meaza seeks to represent her in the legal proceedings. Inspired by this young girl’s courage, Meaza embarks on a long tenacious battle to save Hirut’s life. As the trial unfolds, these two women’s lives become inextricably linked. The emotional toll caused by the highs and lows of their legal battle tests the limits of everything that Meaza and Hirut hold dear.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s March/April 2014 print edition.