One of the great blessings of the cinema of Ousmane Sembène, the de facto father of African cinema, was the insistence that Africa has the power and will to fix its own problems; that they didn’t need the efforts of White Saviors to ride in and provide solutions. Perhaps his greatest triumph, Moolaadé (2004) pragmatically argued that African women could annihilate the practice of female genital mutilation themselves. Ten years later Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s Difret arrives from Ethiopia with a similar message of hope concerning a related issue: child bride kidnapping. Much like Moolaadé, a group of highly motivated women become the impetus for societal change and the advancement of women’s rights. But whereas Moolaadé existed in a quasi-mythic land seemingly outside of time itself, Difret bases itself on a real life court case—the 1996 trial of Aberash Bekele, a 14-year old girl who killed her kidnapper after being abducted, beaten, and raped. Bekele was exonerated in a court of law thanks to the efforts of Meaza Ashenafi, founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Considering how the court case also criminalized bride kidnapping in Ethiopia, we clearly have an Important Story in need of an Important Film.
For the most part Difret succeeds: a sterling performance by Tizita Hagere as Hirut Assefa—the film’s stand-in for Bekele—provides the film with its stark emotional center while the unassuming cinematography courtesy of Monika Lenczewska emphasizes the feeling that the audience aren’t just bystanders, but witnesses. That said the film labors under a few directorial hiccups easily accredited to Mehari’s inexperience. The decision to ellipse almost all of the actual court case and interject it with short flashbacks seems like unnecessary stylistic flourishes. Furthermore, Mehari bizarrely skips over a chase scene where Ashenafi and Hirut escape from gun-totting vigilantes. Considering how he took great pains to depict Hirut’s violent kidnapping and escape, the decision to skip over a similar action beat seems incongruous with the rest of the film. Meron Getnet’s understated performance as Ashenafi isn’t properly suited by the script which hints at her possible emotional turmoil without resolving it at the end. She comes across almost as an enigma instead of a flesh-and-blood human rights crusader. Perhaps that was the intention. But as with the omitted chase scene, it doesn’t quite fit the rest of the film.