As the film opens, a young girl named Hirut is abducted after school by a group of men on horseback in a village outside of Addis Ababa. She is locked up, beaten, and raped by a man who claims that she will soon be his wife. In the process of trying to escape, Hirut kills him in self-defense. She is immediately charged with murder, and an entire village of outraged men want her dead so that she can be buried with her “husband”.
How could a young girl be sentenced for murder when she so clearly acted in self-defense? The social context becomes clear as Meaza Ashenafi, a young lawyer who advocates for women and girls, takes on Hirut’s defense. In rural Ethiopia, telefa — forced marriage by abduction — was a long standing tradition, not at all seen as a violent or criminal act. Women had few rights, nor many options for their life outside the social norm of early marriages and child-rearing.
As Meaza fights persistently and tirelessly for Hirut’s right to live, it’s evident that customary law and cultural traditions run deep. A transitioning Ethiopian society is shown through contrasting images of modern and traditional: the chaos of the city against the grandiose valleys of the countryside; the formal court of law against a customary trial under a tree, in open air; Meaza’s dining room against Hirut’s family huddled by a fire inside their hut.
Based on real events and shot on location in Ethiopia, writer and director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari has made a moving film about an important story. Though at times rough around the edges, Difret is nevertheless a film well worth watching — one that reminds us of the power and necessity of storytelling.