When Difret opens, there is the suggestion that its narrative will initially focus on two parallel plot-lines: one following Meaza Ashenafi, as she aids Ethiopian women with free legal advice through her nonprofit Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, and the other being Hirut’s predicament: a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl subjected to Telefa (the shocking cultural practice of marriage through the abduction and rape of young girls), who subsequently manages to escape by killing her abductor with his rifle, only to then be tried for his “murder”. But the former strand is quickly resolved, and Meaza arrives from the city to have her team represent Hirut, arguing that she acted in self-defense. This means that the film instead opts for a straighter telling of this tragic tale based on a true story, which is perhaps to the detriment of a more engaging piece of cinema, that could have set up their stories independently, before having their paths converge.
Being a low-budget production, filmed on-location in Ethiopia with handheld cameras and a less experienced cast, has given it an authentic, almost documentary-like feel – especially through the use of some dead-straight-on portrait shots – which does feel suitable for the subject matter. But it lacks in terms of style; particularly on a visual level. At times the seams of filmmaking become a little exposed too, such as when characters frequently walk into shot from noticeably off-camera positions. It also tries its hand at being a courtroom drama; however this aspect of the picture feels underdeveloped – with rather rapid, superficial attempts at portraying the inner-workings of the Ethiopian court proceedings which Meaza Ashenafi had to go through. Meron Getnet’s portrayal of Ashenafi doesn’t seem entirely convincing as a political activist either. A consequence of these shortcomings is that the picture ends up feeling a little like a soap-opera in places.
Performances are generally solid throughout though, with Tizita Hagere, who portrays Hirut, particularly standing out: because not only is she a very striking girl to look at, she also manages to portray a range of emotions without having much in the way of dialogue to work with. Dave Eggar and David Schommer’s original musical score also kicks in at key moments; reinforcing both the film’s setting and emotion of the scenes.
Difret’s shortcomings can be forgiven though, as it is a largely engrossing and at times very emotionally touching film. It is an eye-opening piece which has done justice to the subject matter. Writer/director Zeresenay Mehari should be commended for his efforts, telling a story which really needed to be told with rather limited resources.