Writer-director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari's docudrama Difret takes place in Ethiopia and dramatizes the final days of a barbaric tradition known as
telefa - where packs of indigenous men would routinely "select" mates for themselves by plunging through the countryside on horseback and abducting terrified young virgins for themselves as brides. The true story begins in the early 1990s, when 14-year-old farm girl Hirut (Tizita Hagere) gets kidnapped by a band of tribesmen. When they turn their backs, she snatches a rifle and absconds from the woodshed where she is held, with the enraged men not far behind her. Ten minutes later, she has gunned down one of her captors. She manages to evade the pursuers, and finds her way into the custody of a crusading feminist attorney named Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), who takes her case and effectively turns her into a poster child for the fight against telefa. This picture won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and that's high praise - slightly excessive praise, in fact, in light of such superior competitors as Blind and The Disobedient. What we initially get is a familiar but emotionally effective legal thriller with a muckraking sentiment. It's schematic enough that we can identify the trajectory within the first half-hour, but it transcends the familiarities of its narrative formula via startling insights into a culture of such chauvinistic patriarchy that kidnapping and statutory rape became not only commonplace but widely accepted and encouraged in certain contexts until the 1990s. That sociocultural dimension of the movie elevates it several notches, from the level of, say, a Lifetime melodrama into the realm of something far more interesting and culturally significant. Or at least, this is the case during the movie's first half. Angelina Jolie executive produced, and accordingly, much of Difret reflects professionalism and competence on all levels - it benefits from superb performances by the entire ensemble, excellent on-location cinematography and an intelligent script with few loopholes. But after an hour or so, the movie's seams begin to show - culminating with a sequence that has Hirut and Meaza fleeing in a car from irate equestrian tribesmen. Just as the horses catch up with the station-wagon, the picture cuts to black and moves ahead to another scene, with the two women unscathed and permanently out of harm's way. How did they manage to evade being apprehended? The film never tells us, and that omission feels less like a failure-of-will than a failure-of-budget. Mehari, Jolie et. al. obviously worked on a shoestring here, and it shows. The budgetary limitations grow even more problematic in the scenes involving the drama's wrap-up. The filmmakers give us the closure and outcome of the court trial, but by that point, they've set up an engrossing substory involving the wrath and hostility of the tribesmen, that is just left hanging. We ask ourselves how it is possible for one pivotal court victory to redirect the course of an entire patrilineal tradition. (Did fights break out? Torching? Looting? Riots?) As in the escape sequence, we never find out. In the final analysis, then, Difret feels like a motion picture with its heart in the right place and much onscreen to recommend it, but it ultimately bites off more than it can chew - and provides a gentle reminder of the casualties that can result when a seemingly "small" film with a worthy subject doesn't receive the level of production support that it obviously deserves.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern