According to my research, the Amharic word “difret” has two meanings. It commonly means “courage,” with “to dare,” being the closest equivalent in English. But it also can also mean “the act of being raped.” Difret, the film, explores an instance where both meanings are equally important.
The year is 1996 and this is a true story.
Hirut is a fourteen year old girl living in tribal Ethiopia. Ambitious, she attends school and dreams of doing great things with her life – perhaps moving to the city and being accepted to university. Right now though she’s just excited to have been promoted to 5th grade, and enjoying being part of a loving family. In a moment, however, all of that is taken away from her. An older man, who has long had his eye on Hirut, along with his cohorts snatches her in broad daylight carrying her off to his hut in order to be his bride. Guess what? According to tribal law in Ethiopia, this is perfectly acceptable.
Beaten, raped, and scared, Hirut just wants to get back to her family and have nothing to do with this man she wants nothing to do with. Taking advantage of the right moment, Hirut makes her daring escape, only to be cornered once again by her pursuers. In a desperate act of self defense, Hirut kills the man that would have made himself her husband. Not only a disrespectful runaway bride-to-be, the young girl is now a murderer – of a man, no less. The sentence? Death.
It’s shocking to see this scenario play out as modern Ethiopian culture clashes with tribal tradition – with tradition winning out. No woman in Hirut’s situation had ever been pronounced innocent by a court of law. Women’s rights lawyer, Meaza Ashenafi, is determined to do what she can to change this, though, in what becomes a landmark case for Ethiopia.
An enormously significant and controversial film for the African country, it has been banned twice. Once reportedly by the request of the woman on whom Hirut is based. It just goes to show how troubled a country and government it is still, that this unbelievable story from nearly twenty years ago still strikes such sensitive chords.
For it’s cultural significance alone, it is worth seeing. It is a case of truth being more disturbing than fiction, and a window into a world that most Americans probably can’t even imagine actually exists. It’s shocking and fascinating at the same time. Told in a straightforward, almost documentarian sort of way Difret is a bit clunky at times and inexplicably cuts short every scene where something exciting is about to happen. It’s more than a little strange and makes for some confusing transitions and abrupt narrative stops. I imagine the idea was to keep the focus on the people and not turn it into an action or suspense flick, but it doesn’t quite work.
A symptom, likely, of a newly emerging film-making culture in Ethiopia, it doesn’t quite hold up as a movie when measured against the standards we’re used to. At times amateurish and shaky (I don’t mean the camera work), it fails to really impress in those terms. But as a piece of culture and living history, it is an important sight to behold.
Mrs. Hamster says:
“It’s an interesting story but I wish it had been told a little better.”
My rating: Three out of five hats
Difret is not banned in select theaters, including the AFI Silver, Silver Spring, October 30.