BERLIN (Reuters) – “Angelina Jolie presents” is the first thing on screen in the Ethiopian movie “Difret”, but the true story of a 14-year-old girl’s abduction, rape and trial for killing her abductor speaks for itself.
Shown at the Berlin film festival, it features Hirut, a bright, studious girl who dreams of going to university but whose life becomes a nightmare when she is abducted, as is the custom in rural Ethiopia, by a young man to be his bride.
He beats, rapes and imprisons her in a hut, but she manages to grab his rifle, runs away and while being pursued, shoots him dead.
The twist that will jar Western audiences in this Sundance festival audience award winner based on events that took place in 1996 is that she is charged with murder. From the minute of her arrest the men of her village demand she be killed.
Jolie, who adopted one of her children from Ethiopia, asked to be an executive producer to raise the profile of a film.
“This is the first time for me to see the movie and for me it’s a flashback to 16 years,” Meaza Ashenafi, the head of a women’s law network in Ethiopia that successfully defended Hirut, said after a festival screening on Thursday night.
“It’s beautiful, let me put it this way, it’s simply beautiful,” Ashenafi said in a post-screening talk.
Ethiopian-born and U.S.-trained director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari said while he hoped the nascent film industry will grow in Ethiopia, he felt it was even more important to shine a light on the problem the movie depicts.
“It challenged me as an Ethiopian man, you know. I thought, would I be part of the problem?,” Mehari told Reuters in an interview.
“This is tradition, I know about it, I am part of that society. So, it was a question to myself first, could this be something I am also contributing to?
“And I wanted to say something about it and in the process I found out this actually is such a great story also as a filmmaker to tackle. So it was a win-win on both ends.”
He said the involvement of Jolie, who has directed a film about the impact of war on relations between ethnic Serbs and Bosnians during the Bosnian war, had given the project a huge lift.
“She gave me a call and said she wanted to be part of this and she wanted to be able to make it visible to a larger audience. And as you know, independent films especially from Africa don’t see a lot of light, (no matter) how great of a subject matter, how great of a production it is,” Mehari told Reuters.
“I think in the West we have our own preconceived ideas about films or people or traditions in Africa that we don’t care that much about. And this opened doors for us, you know, like for somebody like you to be curious about this story and why Angelina would be part of it.”
Ashenafi, whose Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association represented Hirut, said that despite the case having helped to change Ethiopian law, Hirut was still under threat from the relatives of the young man she killed.
“In an interesting development I was able to establish contact with her just one day before I arrived here. I spoke to her, she is still getting death threats from the family of her abductor,” Ashenafi told Reuters.
“She lives in an uncertain situation and that is a bit distressing for me, because after 16 years she is not free. But on the other hand it is not only distressing, but it is also triggering, you know. We just have to scale up our efforts.
“As soon as I go back I have to look into ways of handling again this problem. So it is not the end of the story at all. It is not the end of the story.”