Last night, the ttff/14 had its first screening of the Ethiopian film Difret, as part of its Panorama offerings, films that connect our country to our heritage countries via history and humanity.
The film is based on the true story of Meaza, a young lawyer and women’s advocate in Addis Ababa, who provides free legal services to the poor. A 14-year-old girl named Hirut is abducted by a farmer who intends to marry her, as is the village tradition. However, she shoots and kills him with his own rifle in an attempt to escape this unwanted fate. Hirut is charged with murder, and Meaza takes on her case. Inspired by this young girl’s courage, Meaza embarks on a long, tenacious battle to save Hirut’s life.
Despite the fact that this true story was responsible for overturning the law in Ethiopia and Hirut was not sentenced to death, I left the theatre with tears on my cheeks, a building anger in my heart and a very disturbed feeling in my soul.
According to the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), 51 million girls between the ages of 15-19 are currently married; 100 million girls will be married before eighteen within the next decade.
This is not even the tip of the iceberg with repsect to the human rights abuses that women and girls experience.
While the cinematography and acting were solid and admirable, the most important thing about the film remains that the truth of Hirut’s story and what happens every day to girls like her, moves audiences to reflect further on their lives, on the situation of women and girls in our own country. Even though our situation might not be as severe Ethiopia, we still have laws on our books that allow girls as young as 12 and 13 to be married; and, as seen in the news, our women and girls are constantly sexually harrassed, raped, tortured, abused and murdered for refusing to allow men to do as they wish with them.
I am happy that the flm provoked that reaction in me. Complacency is a dangerous thing. If Meaza had been complacent about Hirut’s case, Hirut would have been dead along with hundreds more girls who did not want to follow tradition and be abducted, and the law in Ethiopia would not have been changed.
One of the film’s executive producers, Lacey Schwartz, enagaged in a Q&A session with the audience after the film. Here is an excerpt.
How did you get involved to make this film?
My partner at Truth Aid [an NGO Schwartz owns] is Ethiopian and she met the director when he just had a script and wanted to make this happen. This is a pretty well known story in Ethiopia and so when she met him and read the script, she was really taken by it. It really connected to a lot of the work that we do, particularly around women’s rights, so we felt that this story was something that we could really localise and do a lot of outreach around. So initially we just had a script and we worked on that and raised money for it to get it done.
How did Angelina Jolie get involved?
One of the other executive producers is a really well known Ethiopian-American artist and she is really well connected and she is amazing. She sold a painting to help finance the film. She had a mutual friend with Angelina and she thought that this is a project that she would really love and would connect with the work that she does. At this point we were actually done with the film and Angelina watched it and said, “How can I help? I want to do whatever I can to help” and she really has been amazing and very, very supportive of the film.
Could you give a background to the politics behind the Minister of Justice? There seemed to be a contradiction between the traditional culture and the justice system there.
In terms of a background, this is a big theme in the film and it is still something that continues to this day. These are obviously issues that aren’t specific to Ethiopia. Child marriage and child abduction happens all around the world but it was a huge issue in Ethiopia. It has gotten better but it is still a problem.
That also follows a lot of work that we want to do with this film, which is not just to show it in theatres [in Ethiopia], but we also want to make sure that we go out to open-air theatres, bringing the screens and projectors to the different villages. That conversation around how you advance things, not just in terms of constitutional law but traditional law and even though the film did help to advance the constitutional law, it is still very much an issue in terms of how things are upheld and the rules that different villages follow.
What part, if any, did the real Hirut play in the making of the film and what does she think of it?
During the making of the film she was not involved. She does do work around these issues. It’s really sad, to this day she still cannot go back to her village and is separated from her family. So it goes back to what I was saying before and also that last scene where there is the celebration of the success but also mourning what she will never have and that’s still very much the case. It’s not just a success but it’s also a tragic story. She is becoming more involved now that we are doing outreach around the film and with the possibility of conversations and to have her be an activist around the project.
What kind of film distribution plans do you have? Are you doing a theatrical release or are you just doing the film festival circuit?
At the Sundance film festival in January we won the audience award for World Dramatic Competition and then we went on to Berlin where we won their audience award as well. We have sold the film in 22 countries around the world and it will be coming out theatrically this fall. Ethiopia has just submitted the film for best foreign language film for the 2015 Oscars. We are in the process of figuring out what exactly the theatrical release is going to look like in the United States so we haven’t yet sold it in the US.
You are not just here for Difret, you are also a filmmaker yourself. You have a film yourself in the Festival which also had its first screening this evening. Can talk a bit about that?
I have a documentary I directed called Little White Lie. It’s a personal film about dual identity and family secrets. My partner and I were making these two films at the same time and I’m happy to say that the trinidad+tobago film festival is our first film festival that both films are showing at so that’s a great thing for us.
The other film is very different but connected to the same ideas. We have a non-profit production company and we make these projects to talk about the larger issues they raise to use them as tools. My partner and I have non-traditional backgrounds as filmmakers; I went to law school, she went to medical school. She is also a visual anthropologist so we look at using media as a tool to have a lot of the conversations and so the work that we want to do. So even thought they are different—one is a documentary film, one is a fiction film; one is an international film, one is a US film—we feel they are very connected because they are both strong stories about women and both talking about the power of telling the truth.
So there are themes running through them both and we hope that more and more we will have opportunities to program them together. We are very excited that this is the first festival that we can do that with and we hope to do that more as we move forward.
Difret will be showing again on Wednesday 24 September, 1.00pm, at MovieTowne POS.