There’s a scene in Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s feature film debut “Difret,” where several men swoop in, riding horses and abruptly kidnap 14-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) as she walks home from school. There’s something very masculine and forceful about it, almost as if they’re cowboys coming to take over a town. The film, which had it’s world premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, centers on the very textured bond between Hirut and the tenacious female lawyer (Meaza Ashenafi, played by Meron Getnet) who comes to represent her in a fight against one of the country’s oldest traditions of abduction into marriage, which is also practiced in many other parts of the world.
Based on a true story, the film explores this patriarchal custom through intimate character relationships and effective storytelling where villains and heroes become blurred in the milieu of a very diverse Ethiopia; one we don’t often see onscreen. I caught up with Mehari (who goes by Zee) to discuss how he discovered the story, his techniques for working with actors, and the preset “African look” that he avoided in “Difret.”
Shadow & Act: I was wondering if you could talk about the initial spark that birthed the idea for this film and how much research you did into the true story that the film is based on?
Zeresenay Berhane Mehari: I found the story in 2005 when I was in Addis, I graduated from USC in 2002 and started in 2003. I’ve been going back to Ethiopia frequently and spending a half a year there and my intentions were to find stories that I wanted to tell. I was working in LA at the time in television and then the second year, I was working in commercials so I felt like I always wanted to do Ethiopian stories and that was the reason why I went to film school.
In 2005 I was there for working on a documentary and then I met Meaza Ashenafi, the lawyer who started the Ethiopian Women Lawyers association. Then, a few months later I’m back to Ethiopia with a binder full of stuff I found about her online and then I wanted to talk to her and I was serious about doing the story about her and the organization that started and then through the research and through the conversation I had with her, I discovered the groundbreaking case that happened and put the organization and her on the map so that became the plot line, the second plotline, for this story to show her struggle and what she had to go through in order to advance women’s issues in Ethiopia.
It wasn’t that easy. She didn’t come out and say, “Oh sure, why not? Just go ahead and do it.” She was very skeptical at first. An Ethiopian man wanted to do a story about women, and I don’t know if she’s been asked that kind of stuff before either, and I was young and she didn’t think I was so serious about what I was doing. I kept calling her and I put together a look-book and I showed it to her and she was like “This guy’s not gonna leave me alone so let’s see what he’s going to do,” and with her blessing I started doing the research. It took me about 3 years to do the research and around 2008, September or March I wrote the first draft of the script and I showed it to her and she said “cool,” and I went with it.
S&A: One of the things I really appreciated about the film was the diversity in the representations of Ethiopian people, and I think sometimes there’s this really limited idea or portrayal of these people but I love how you showed people with different opinions, who looked very different from each other and how do you feel this film contributes to representations of Ethiopian people in popular culture?
ZM: One of the things I was very careful about was not to point fingers and I know that wasn’t going to help anybody, and it wasn’t going to be the right sort of presentation of the issue, so I took my feelings and my opinions out of it, completely.
So, in order to understand why traditions happen in the way they happen you have to see the country as a whole in the context of their culture and their tradition so that was the toughest thing to do, especially when you’re trying to make a feature film that needs to have all the elements of drama.
But in this case, I wasn’t so sure I was going to be able to put all of those elements in there and then still give you suspense, still give you complexity of the characters, still give you some sort of drama and entertainment for you not to be like, “Oh God, here comes another poor African story,” so I’m so glad to hear from you and you actually saw different shades of the country.
One person said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a democracy practiced the way the Ethiopian male elders practiced in that one meeting, but in the West’s sense of it.”
S&A: I loved that scene. I think it would’ve been so easy for there to be this good guy, bad guy dynamic but there were so many different opinions in those men about what to do, and I think you just answered that in terms of going beyond this one dimensional characterization and present varied perspectives.
ZM: And we’ve seen that before. As an African filmmaker, I cringe whenever I see an African character portrayed in a film and they’re one dimensional, and I’m like, wait a minute, this is not the people I know. I grew up, born and raised there and I left when I was 19 so this doesn’t look like my mom, this doesn’t look like my dad, these people are very complex, and also they can articulate whether you find it right or wrong.
S&A: What was your experience working with the actress who played Hirut, and what was her reaction to the subject matter? Did she have any connection to it or insight?
ZM: Tizita, who played Hirut is an amazing actor. We were guided by some higher power to find her because she’s a first time actor, she’s never been in front of the camera before, she wasn’t sure if she had any interest in acting. It was winter and we actually take breaks in winter not in the summer like here. So it was winter, so she’s like maybe I should try some acting classes that I heard about and she was on her second week or third week of that training and we found her two weeks before we started shooting.
Mind you, we did eight months of casting and we’d seen thousands of people to find her and we’d finally given up and I was like, “Okay I guess we’re not going to shoot if I cant find her, we’re not going to shoot” and then she came around and the first time I saw her I was like- because I never met the real-life Hirut, because she wasn’t around when we were making the film or prior to that, because of what happened to her she had to change her name and leave the country, so she was in hiding, so whatever stuff I knew about her was from the words she said, from the newspapers that I got, and the photos that I’ve seen so I created most of her in my head and when I saw Tizita, she became that person for me.
Because she was a first-time actor, I knew that I needed to be very careful with her. With her, having the most emotional part in the entire film I knew I needed to be very careful so what I did was basically segregate her because I wanted to keep the rawness in her. So, the first thing was making sure she was on her own most of the time when she came to shoot her scene, I specifically didn’t want her and Meron who plays Meaza to develop friendship, so I kept them separately.
And then what I did was I kept talking to her about what happened to the girl, so I don’t know if she has faced something similar, but her reaction to it was as if she’s been there or gone through it. At one point I asked her, would you ever do another film and she said “No I don’t think I can find another character like Hirut.”
Whenever we met for the shoot, I’d give her the sides, and then we’ll talk about it and as we’re talking about it, I can see her change and completely morph into Hirut and that’s where you go, “let’s go right now” and she killed it. Most of the scenes you see are first or second takes.
ZM: We were forced to basically take her very seriously and she was the youngest person on set, she was 13 when we shot.
S&A: And you said a lot of the takes were first and second takes. You also shot the film on 35mm and I wondered how that played into that-
ZM: At first everybody was like you’re crazy to want to shoot on film and then I took 35mm stills of the locations and then we did a test shoot in Los Angeles and in Ethiopia and after they saw that, they knew that the country was as much a part of the story as the characters and I wanted also to show a different type of Ethiopia than people have seen, and it seems like for any European cinematographer that Africa all resembles the same. I could see South Africa and Nigeria being the same, and it’s as if they have a preset African look, just press a button and the “African look” shows up.
And so that’s one of the things that people noticed- they didn’t know Ethiopia was that green and that was important for me because I wanted to show the opposite of the city and the village and I wanted to show the film from the point of view of the people, the characters, how they see their country, not necessarily how I see it.
S&A: And you mentioned, this is a women-centered film and I really felt the bond between the two lead characters. Was that a concern for you as a male director- how were you going to foster that dynamic because it came through so well?
ZM: I didn’t see it as a feminine film or a feminist film or I didn’t see myself as a guy doing a feminist film. That didn’t occur to me. My entry point has always been the characters and what they experience so when you delve into the characters, their gender becomes irrelevant because we all want the same thing and we all feel the same passions and determinations, we all hurt, we’re brave, some of us are not, but if approach it that way, then you are serving the character and you’re serving the story as opposed to trying to create “can they say this or can this be done?,” and to give the real life characters respect also because this is stuff that they’ve done so like it or not, you are guided by their courage.