Zeresenay Berhane is an Ethiopian filmmaker who wrote and directed Difret, his
debut feature film, based on a true story about the precedent-setting court case that
outlawed the practice of abduction for marriage.
Marriage by abduction is a traditional practice followed by almost 80 percent of the
residents of Oromiya Region in Ethiopia. Since 2004, the Ethiopian penal code has
forbidden girls to get married before the age of 18; it also punishes those who flout
the law with up to 20 years imprisonment.
These early marriages have been observed by the Oromo for ages. Traditionally they
represent a way for the daughter to attain financial stability for herself and the family
she comes from.
Ex-University of Southern California (USC) student Berhane directed the film and
decided to write the screenplay which is from a true story about Hirut, a 14-year-old
rural girl who is kidnapped by a gang of men on horseback and forced to marry their
leader. But in her agitation to be free she escapes by shooting her captor with a
stolen rifle. The story is fairly typical and its themes resonate with traditions that run
through the veins of African culture.
After Hirut’s arrest, Meaza, a young lawyer and a fierce advocate for women, aids the
teenager by taking on her defense case.
‘We wanted to make a story about the importance of tradition in crossroads with the
law,’ Berhane says. ‘Ethiopia is a multilayered reservoir of stories and if one can
capture this in film and show the world the challenges that young girls are facing
then that is really critical in appreciating the very shortcomings of culture.’Unusually,
considering the current digital trend, the film was entirely shot on 35mm. Hollywood
star Angelina Jolie served as executive producer, which is no surprise given her vocal
advocacy of the rights of young women and children around the globe.
“I think she was drawn to the story because she has an adopted child from there and
that gives her a certain prerogative to prove herself a champion for child’s rights,’
says cinematographer Monika Lenczewska. The Polish-born Lenczewska is based in
Los Angeles and was recently nominated for an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival.
She was engaged in the story from the moment she read the script.
‘As a woman my interest was captured from the very beginning, Difret is about the
daily challenges that traditional young African women face – and who would not be
curious to capture that in film?’ she adds.
The film was produced by Haile – Addis Pictures Inc, which was founded by Berhane.
It has its headquarters in Washington DC with a branch in Addis Ababa.
Berhane was born in 1977 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and has been involved in film
production for over a decade. He studied at the USC school of Cinematic Arts where
he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
“I owe my creative knowledge in film to USC; my years there were a great
experience,’ he says proudly.
The film was entirely shot in the mountainous Oromo region and Addis Ababa. It was
nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2014 and won the Audience Award.
At the Berlin International Film Festival it won the Panorama Audience Award.
‘People usually ask me how I did it, I tell them that I have had this idea for years
and finally through my consistent dream and persistence, I ended up knowing
someone who got me in touch with Angelina Jolie, and after reading the script she
got in touch. The rest is history.’
The principal cast was by Meron Getnet a veteran Ethiopian actress and Tizita Hagere
with music scored in studio by David Schommer and David Eggar both of them
Grammy nominated for their musical expertise. The editing was done by another
female of Polish origin; Agnieszka Glinska, a graduate of the Polish National Film
School and is a member of the Polish Editors Society.
The film is in Amharic with English subtitles.
“If one has to make films about Africa they have to know the basic culture, the life of
its people and then only they can portray that through film,’ Getnet says. “We are
the greatest continent with uncharted waters, there are thousands of stories that can
be told about Africa with precision and if they can be told professionally then anyone
in the world will love to be a part of this journey.”