It’s reassuring that Tizita Hagere only learned of the practice of telefa after she was cast in “Difret,” born after the case depicted in Zeresenay Mehari’s suspenseful legal thriller that criminalized the longheld tradition in villages in Ethiopia where men were entitled to abduct young girls to become their bride in 1996.
“I didn’t know the story before I heard it from Ze, so it was nice to be in the film,” said the teenager, who was called upon to play the focal point of the case, a girl named Hirut who defends herself after being kidnapped by a group of seven men from a nearby village on her walk home from school by killing the man who plans to marry her.
Sitting next to Hagere in Los Angeles recently was Mehari and Meaza Ashenafi, the woman who exonerated Hirut and helped rewrite Ethiopian law with the verdict as part of her work with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association. An organization she cofounded to help such women in need, Ashenafi’s work is unfortunately never finished and despite the landmark decision in Hirut’s case, telefa remains an issue in the country, which struggles to reconcile the rules still adhered to by the tribes that live outside its major cities to the modern society the rest of the country strives for.
That clash of the past and the future is brought to vivid life in “Difret,” which shows how Ashenafi (played in the film by Meron Getnet) savvily works the legal system in the city of Addis Ababa and the tribal elders in the village much like the one she grew up in herself to clear Hirut from any wrongdoing. And like Ashenafi, writer/director Mehari is also providing a bridge between generations in simply making the film, taking what he learned from USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts back to the country of his birth to give them greater representation around the world. “Difret,” which added Angelina Jolie as an executive producer shortly before its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, has been a true pioneer in that respect and while in LA, Mehari and Ashenafi took the time to speak about taking the film around the world and the impact of both their efforts, legally and cinematically, on eradicating telefa as the film contends for this year’s best foreign language film at the Oscars as Ethiopia’s official entry.
Before getting to the film itself, Zeresenay actually came to America to study film, so was it always the goal to return to Ethiopia to tell stories like this?
Zeresenay Mehari: Yeah, absolutely. When I came here I felt like if I couldn’t be a soccer player, which I wanted to be at first, the next thing I wanted to do was film. So everything that I did in school [here] was always about Ethiopia or Ethiopians who lived here or Ethiopians anywhere in the world. I couldn’t wait to go back. I thought I was going to be done in two years, then go back to Ethiopia and start making films. But it wasn’t that easy at first because we didn’t have the infrastructure. I had to wait a long time, but I didn’t want to do anything else but make Ethiopian films and I still feel that way to a certain degree.
So you were at a dinner party when you heard this story?
Zeresenay Mehari: I was at a friend’s house, we were having a beer and I met Meaza’s brother, who when he learned that I was a filmmaker, said, “Oh, you should make a film about my sister.” I’m like, “Yeah, sure why not?” That’s how it started. He told me a little bit about her and I was doing another project, so I didn’t give it much of a thought. But then when I got back to Los Angeles, I typed in her name and all this stuff came out about her work. Within four months, I jumped on a plane and went back to meet her.
I imagine there were a number of important cases Meaza has worked on. Why was this the one that stood out for inspiration?
Zeresenay Mehari: My interest was in telling a story about Meaza and the organization that just started, so this case just became the plot of the film because it went hand in hand with her struggle. As a young lawyer starting a very brand new organization, there were lot of struggles, doubt and this was a key case that [Meaza] had to win this in order to do other things. I didn’t know going in this would be the case, but this was one of the biggest cases that put her and her organization on the map and also was the first time people started having conversations [about this].
Meaza Ashenafi: This was the biggest one. If the organization was not able to pick up this case, it would just be another criminal case – a young woman killing a man and she would remain in prison forever. That’s why the intervention of the organization was very important because we took it as a precedence setting case that would expose abduction against our women.
Meaza, was there something that was important for you for this film to convey?
Meaza Ashenafi: Many things actually. First of all, I think the film shows the power of organization – how important women’s organizing is, how important freedom of expression and association is and also it shows about the changing role of women. In my country, before my generation, if women are successful as teachers or nurses, it’s a big deal. Of course, it also talks about the importance of justice, so the film is full of messages at different levels.
I’ve read while Zeresenay was doing research for three years – well after the case in the film had been settled and changed the law of the land – you couldn’t find anyone who objected to the practice of telefa that’s depicted in the film. Was it hard to reconcile this with telling the story of Meaza’s success?
Zeresenay Mehari: The title of the film before “Difret” was “Oblivion.” Then Tom Cruise went and made a film, so we couldn’t use that title. But when I discovered the case through the research and all of the things that the organization has done, you don’t hear Meaza’s name. There were many gains in policy and law, but they were forgotten and it was as if nothing had happened.This tradition is so accepted and I felt like we have to be outraged about this.
We have to forget that it’s a great story and it will make a good film, but the fact that it’s not everybody’s conversation when you sit at the dinner table. I would have a conversation with educated people, even some that actually went [to school] out of the country and I saw how uneasy people are when you talk about their tradition. They don’t want to change tradition, they want to protect tradition, especially if they sense that you have a little exposure outside of the country. So there was pushback [along the lines of], “Oh, you want to expose a tradition that is well and accepted in this country.” I was furious about that.
Meaza Ashenafi: The society is also a little bit desensitized because that’s what they know. This is an exception that the woman gets up and says, “I will not accept this.” So there is a resistance at different level, even if they are educated, even if there are aware, they are still inclined towards embracing what already exists. Change is always difficult.
A less sophisticated film would demonize those who believe strongly in this tradition, but you go to great lengths, it seems, to show how they rationalize such atrocious acts. Was that actually challenging?
Zeresenay Mehari: You have to understand why they do what they do in order to even have a conversation about it. You can’t start by pointing fingers. That’s not what I wanted to do. I actually wanted to learn that why is it accepted and why was a girl who defended herself was on trial for murder. Why and how could that be a tradition? In order for us as an audience to buy in into what we’re seeing, I had to be very balanced in the way that I put everything on the table.
It’s very easy to create monsters, but [the film] would have lost its effect if we painted good here and bad here and then this is what happened. You’re able to see their life as a whole, not just this one thing that they’ve done – When Meaza goes into the villages to talk to the people [about the case], they’re invited home and [the families tell her], “Oh, you can’t leave without eating.” The hospitality that we have, that’s a very amazing tradition too. So you have to show them as whole human beings and not just define them with this one act. It was the hardest part to do actually – [to show] the antagonist is the tradition and not necessarily the men.
How did you cast Tizita Hagere as Hirut?
Zeresenay Mehari: We auditioned for eight months and we couldn’t find young girls who could actually carry her part because it was probably the most emotionally charged part in the film. Many of the impulses of the film are connected with her. Added to that was the problem of not having trained actors in Ethiopia, especially her age level or younger, which made it that much more difficult. Two weeks before we shot, we got a chance to go into this acting workshop this old thespian started a long time ago and there she was in her first month of training when we found her.
Is it a challenge to make a film in Ethiopia where there may not be all that much of an infrastructure for film?
Zeresenay Mehari: Except for not finding young actors, we have a very robust theatrical tradition, so there’s no shortage of actors, and in terms of finding the other roles, we had 71 speaking roles in the film, it wasn’t that hard. But in casting, I veered towards having non-actors play key roles.
Like the assistant DA is a businessman [in real life]. He never acted a day in his life, he heard about the audition from someone and he showed up our studios and then he nailed it. It was more difficult once we started filming because once he saw all those people behind the camera and the big light was on him, he got so nervous and he couldn’t utter a word, so we had to work with him for two weeks and we pushed his shoot to the end of the film. But it was important for me to basically not just use known actors in Ethiopia but actually finding the right fit for the film. The chemistry has to be there because much of the story depends on the actors and how believable they were. They had to have a little bit of knowledge not just in acting but also in life.
In terms of the crew, I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the way we make films. I was lucky I worked in Hollywood for 10 years before I made this, so I knew how to do things. But we lack trained manpower in making films, so I felt like there had to be some transfer [of knowledge from myself to my crew] when we do this film. I had a crew of 61 people, only nine of whom came from the outside, and most of them were kids that I trained myself 10 years prior.
There is a mix of impulses because it marries a very naturalistic, documentary-style look with the structure of an old fashioned Hollywood legal thriller. Were you conscious of that mix?
Zeresenay Mehari: I know that the film had to be shot in a different way. I didn’t want to make it a typical Hollywood film, so I didn’t want to light it like a Hollywood film or to have the [same] camera movements. About 95% of the time we were handheld and I wanted the audience to experience it first hand, so you were not just sitting back and watching. But the balance was great because it is very classical storytelling in a way that it just sets you up for everything. Except romance, it has everything in the film.
Meaza Ashenafi: [smiles] It has a little bit of romance.
What it’s been like to take this film around the world?
Zeresenay Mehari: It’s so crazy because we spent so many years trying to get this film made, then it’s almost unreal that we were getting calls that people wanted to show this film and be in their festival.
Meaza Ashenafi: It’s overwhelming. I was very happy [to see the film made], but I would never imagine it would be such a success. I’m so happy in the outcome.
Zeresenay Mehari: Three months before we finished the film, we didn’t have the money to finish the film. We went to Ethiopia knowing that we’re going to have to raise money in order to finish the film, so at some point, you then have to pinch yourself and say, “Is this really happening? Is this real?” Like [Meaza] said, it’s very overwhelming.
There’s been an extensive campaign to raise awareness of telefa, including a national tour of Ethiopia, in addition to the promotion of the film. Has it been interesting to become an advocate beyond being just a filmmaker?
Zeresenay Mehari: I’m seeing all of this stuff that’s happening right now in America – the Michael Brown case and the Eric Garner case – and then how filmmakers or athletes or personalities are voicing their opinion. Advocacy is not a job. We all are advocates and we all should be advocates. In my mind, yes, I’m a filmmaker but I’m also a human being. I remember one of my favorite teachers said, “You can never take politics out of art.” Even though you’re not going into filmmaking under the auspices of advocating for something, I welcome it. I’m fortunate to be able to learn about this issue and to be able to say something about it. If you have a medium like a film and you’re a writer or a director, I could even say it’s an obligation to share your opinion and to shed light in things that might not be easy to talk about.