Sundance Film Review: ‘Difret’

Variety

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Illuminating a tradition in much of rural Ethiopia that grossly violates the rights of women and girls, “Difret” presents an important message, albeit in rather clunky narrative terms. More showing and less telling would have made this fact-inspired drama by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari as artistically compelling as it is informative. Still, fests and other outlets attracted to social-justice issues will queue up for this relatively rare export-ready Ethiopian feature.

Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet) is co-founder of a legal nonprofit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that offers free counsel for women and advocates for their rights. The need for such activism is even greater in remote communities like one three hours away from the capital, where 14-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) lives on the family farm. Walking home from school one day, she’s abducted by seven armed men, one of whom had already been refused her hand in marriage. Locked in a hut, she’s raped that night by her “suitor,” then manages to escape the next day with his rifle; in terror, she shoots him dead when cornered.

Such kidnappings are tolerated as a traditional if not universally approved means for men to get the wives they want hereabouts. And no matter that Hirut has been raped and beaten, local justice decrees that she be executed for murder (then buried with her victim). Before that can happen, Meaza and a regional colleague intervene, pulling strings to go over the heads of hostile area police. While Hirut is temporarily in safe hands, tribal elders decide the girl should be exiled rather than killed, a decision few villagers agree with. Either way, she must leave home for her own safety, first being taken in by Meaza, then entrusted to an orphanage. City life is so alien that she’s terrified by the sound of a ringing telephone, having quite possibly never heard one before.

Meanwhile, her judicial (as opposed to tribal) trial proceeds. Given that no witness is willing to testify on Hirut’s behalf, Meaza takes a possibly career-ending public gamble in an effort to change the whole system’s attitude toward women who kill in self-defense.

Such political and cultural insights hold attention. But whether in an attempt to case-plead international viewers or biased local ones, everything here is spelled out in  pedestrian fashion — most often verbally, no matter how easily we might glean that intel from the general events. The unwillingness to let nuance communicate lends a flat quality to the drama here; after the initial crimes, suspense situations are simply lopped off prematurely, the action jumping clumsily to their aftermath. (This is particularly inept when the leads are about to be attacked by vigilantes, then appear safe with no explanation whatsoever.) It’s also disappointing that the pic starts out suggesting there will be a second major illustrative case, involving a woman battered by her alcoholic husband. But this thread is simply dropped after a couple scenes.

Performances are OK, the widescreen 35mm lensing handsome in landscape shots but otherwise uninteresting. Other tech/design contributions are likewise pro but uninspired, though David Schommer and David Eggar’s score contributes some flavor with its mix of indigenous and Western-style sounds. Angelina Jolie’s name as exec producer should help spread the pic’s progressive message around; it’s just too bad this vehicle is so short on style and subtlety.

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