Sundance Film Review: ‘Difret’

Zeresenay Berhane Mehari's film presents an important message in clunky narrative terms.


Meron Getnet, Tizita Hagere, Shetaye Abreha Mekonen, Leake, Meaza Tekle, Mickey Tesfaye, Brook Shiferaw, Moges Yohannes, Teferi Alemu, Haregewine Assefa, Dirbwork Seifu, Getachew Debalke, Yohannes Beay, Rahel Teshome, Kal Teshome. (Amharic dialogue)

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Sundance Film Review: 'Difret'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 23, 2014. Running time: 99 MIN.


(Ethiopia) A Haile-Addis Pictures production in association with Truth Aid Media. (International sales: UTA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Mehret Mandefro, Leelai Demoz, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari. Executive producer, Angelina Jolie, Julie Mehretu, Jessica Rankin, Francesca Zampi, Lacey Schwartz. Co-producer, Jay Spangler.


Directed, written by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari. Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm-to-HD), Monika Lenczewska; editor, Agnieszka Glinska; music, David Schommer, David Eggar; production designer, Dawit Shawel; art director, Ourael Berhanu; set decorator, Tewodros Berhanu; costume designer, Helina Desalegn; sound, Laurence G. Smith; sound designers, J.M. Davey, Zach Seivers; assistant director, Jonathan Peterson; casting, Girma Adane.


Meron Getnet, Tizita Hagere, Shetaye Abreha Mekonen, Leake, Meaza Tekle, Mickey Tesfaye, Brook Shiferaw, Moges Yohannes, Teferi Alemu, Haregewine Assefa, Dirbwork Seifu, Getachew Debalke, Yohannes Beay, Rahel Teshome, Kal Teshome. (Amharic dialogue)

More Film

  • Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) has

    Film News Roundup: 'The Irishman,' 'Marriage Story' Added to Criterion Collection

    In today’s film news roundup, four Netflix titles have been added to the Criterion Collection, Slamdance and ArcLight are partnering, Steven Grayhm is starring in and directing a paranormal drama, and The Mammoth Film Festival sets its lineup. CRITERION COLLECTION Four Netflix titles will be released on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection — Martin Scorsese’s [...]

  • Bong Joon Ho 'Parasite' Director

    Listen: Who Will Take Home the Oscars for Best Director and Picture?

    The Oscars are just two weeks away, so it’s time to start making final predictions about who is going to win. On this week’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, I invited the magazine’s deputy awards and features editor (and my “Pick of the Week” co-host) Jenelle Riley onto the show [...]

  • Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

    'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets': Film Review

    “Smile for the camera, motherf—ers,” warns the graffiti outside the Roaring Twenties, a Las Vegas dive bar where spirits are high because the end is nigh. The boozers who’ve braved this dim red cave, in Bill and Turner Ross’ bitterly funny docufiction film “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” have signed on to play themselves in an [...]

  • Mucho Mucho Amor

    'Mucho Mucho Amor': Film Review

    What a fraud, you might have thought glimpsing astrologist Walter Mercado on TV in the ’90s. But you wouldn’t forget his face. The bejeweled and blonded psychic hotline pitchman looked like a sorcerer from outer space. Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch’s giddily glittery documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor” traces the half-century that Mercado was a global [...]

  • Oscar OScars Placeholder

    Number of Black Oscar Nominees Hits 3-Year Low in 2020

    The Oscars’ failure to nominate any female directors has ignited a fierce backlash, as has the lack of diversity among top acting nominees. A deeper dive into the categories reveals that the number of black nominees hit a three-year low. Only five black people were nominated for Oscars in 2020. That’s down from 15 in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content