I didn’t know what to think when I first started watching Difret. I knew that Angelina Jolie Pitt was an executive producer and, admittedly, her reputation as a third world sugar momma slightly put me off. I wanted to watch without bias, but wondered about the possibility of back-handed racism that is always a part of the “white savior” complex. To my pleasant surprise, I was compelled by the characters and the story they inhabit, all taking place in rural Ethiopia’s open fields, whose pastel flowers speckle the gorgeous 35mm shots.
The film follows a 14-year-old girl—Hirut (Tizita Hagere) and her journey with abduction, rape, and, finally, a murder charge that forces her to move away from her family. Her convicted ally, Meaza (Meron Getnet), is a stubbornly well-written figure of emerging female leadership in the changing culture of Ethiopia, where abduction is a traditional means to claiming child brides. When Hirut’s rape and abduction leaver her reasonably quavering in terror, her fight or flight sends her running from her abductors, gun in hand.
The film was written and directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, who was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital, which is located just three hours from the village where the nonfictional plot line is based. Mehari moved to the Untied States in 1996 to study film at the University of Southern California, and when he graduated spent his time travelling back and forth between the two disparate countries that were his homes. “We had electricity, running water, TV, cinema—all of that. The traditional place we’d see in Ethiopian dramas was just something in the back of my mind,” said Mehari of his experiences at home.
But his view was altered when his brother introduced him to Meaza, the attorney who pioneered the Ethiopian women’s legal organization featured in the film. I really enjoyed watching Meaza, the film’s star and the ally of 14 year old victim Hirut, grow together throughout the bureaucratic struggle of their mutual pursuit of justice. We are brought fully into the jagged emotional landscape of the scenario when Hirut, rescued from her prison cell and alone in her attorney’s apartment, has a meltdown in response to a ringing phone. Something that is so commonplace to my urban, western mind is to her is a rattling experience that allows me to feel the distance between my world and hers. Then there are moments like her look of terror in the heat of a chase scene, which is relatable to female victims of sexual assault everywhere.
Change is complex—this film illustrates that. I have complicated questions about my own white gaze intersecting with the problems plaguing poorer nations that my white ancestors created via colonialism and modern neoliberalism. This movie pulled me into the turmoil and chaos that is great change in the world—and the human lives of which that change is comprised. What happens when tradition is broken? That’s the question that this film answers with a solid plot line and committed, courageous characters.
Images via Truth Aid
More from BUST