When Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, newly arrived in the United States to continue his education, wrote to his father in Ethiopia that he’d decided to study film, the reaction was not exactly positive.
"He wrote back a two-page letter outlining what a big mistake it was," says Mehari, smiling at the memory. "He felt that was what other people did, not Ethiopians. There were no filmmakers in the country; he didn’t have anything to relate to. He wanted me to study to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer. He gave me an ultimatum."
Fortunately, that was a demand that the 37-year-old Mehari, who tells people to call him Z, chose to ignore. A graduate of USC film school, he wrote and directed the compelling “Difret,” the first Ethiopian film to be accepted at Sundance, a drama about the Ethiopian tradition of abducting young girls into marriage that is strong enough to have gotten the support of Angelina Jolie as an executive producer.
Based on a true story, “Difret” tells of an abducted 14-year-old village girl who does the unthinkable and kills the man involved. Coming from the capital, Addis Ababa, to defend her is Meaza Ashenafi (Ethiopian actress Meron Getnet), a confident woman who advocates for the rights of women and children but finds this case more confounding than she had expected.
Mehari says he chose this story because “this case stopped me and made me think. This tradition is part of our culture. If you look closely, you could find family members who have done this. We’ve never seen it as a form of violence. We’ve never questioned that. Usually the girls do not retaliate, and when this girl did it was the first time we as a country were forced to look at what happens.”
Because so few Ethiopian films are screened in the West or even made in the first place, Mehari felt a great responsibility “to show and tell the story the right way.”
This meant insisting that the actors speak Amharic, not English, a stipulation that made the film harder to finance and meant “Difret” took years longer to reach the screen. It also meant shooting on film — only the fourth time this has been done in Ethiopia — to make the look and feel of the country, its vast spaces and noisy capital city, part of the story.
Most of all, doing it right meant understanding that “pointing fingers is not going to help the issue. A friend read the script, and the first question was, ‘Who’s the villain?’ If there is a villain in my film, it’s not a person; it’s the tradition.
"This didn’t happen because the men are horrible. They didn’t know any better. They got the tradition from their parents and carried it on, and you need to portray them in a way that communicates that."
Though Mehari’s father, the owner-chef of a small restaurant in Addis Ababa, was uncertain about filmmaking as a career for his son, he was instrumental in making it happen.
For one thing, both of Mehari’s parents were committed to their children getting as much education as possible: The director and his six siblings all have college degrees.
For another, it was Mehari’s father who introduced him to film.
"Since I was 6 years old until I was 18, my dad used to take us to the movies every Sunday. It was a family tradition. I grew up during the Communist military dictatorship in Ethiopia, so there were no Western movies, but we did see three movies every Sunday — Indian movies, martial-arts movies, Soviet propaganda movies."
More than entertainment, the theaters provided “a safe haven for young boys. There was a civil war in Ethiopia, and the government was taking boys from families to serve in the army. But they didn’t dare come into the theaters. My being there was a big relief for my mother.”
Though it took Mehari three years to research the story, another year to write the script and two years to get it filmed, that length of time did have an unexpected dividend.
At the screening of a documentary he had worked on, Mehari met a physician named Mehret Mandefro. She read his script and became a producer (as well as a White House Fellow in 2009). The two fell in love, married and are now the parents of a 7-month-old son.
Mehari now spends half his time in Ethiopia, and though it was important for him to make a film that could cross over to Western audiences, it was, if anything, more important for “Difret” to be shown and have an impact in that country.
"The cycle has to break at some point," he says of these abductions. "What you have to do is educate. I hope this film will go a long way toward changing thinking in Ethiopia."