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When a film comes across as slight, there’s nothing to blame but the storytelling: It’s simple either for the sake of expediency or because the screenwriters want you to fill their quiet with depth or meaning that isn’t always there. The former case can be shrugged off. The latter, however, is often a frustrating experience, making you feel like you’re a slave to the filmmakers’ pretension as you continually squint at your watch.
Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s Difret, about a girl abducted in her Ethiopian village for marriage, is guilty of the first sin. The issue of forcing developing-world traditions to abide by first-world morals—and, in turn, laws—is a thorny one not easily distilled in 99 minutes. But Mehari’s script paints the intricate true story as an unchallenging, instantly judgeable matter of good guys versus bad, not truly taking into account that the “bad guys” are abiding by generations-old customs.
Granted, it’s no easy task to make kidnappers and rapists sympathetic. Difret, which in Amharic has a double meaning of “to dare” and “to be raped,” tells the tale of 14-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere), a smart girl who goes to school and has just been promoted to a higher grade. She skips out of the classroom with a smile on her face, but Mehari makes quick work of putting the plot in motion: As she’s walking home, Hirut is surrounded by men on horses and carried off to a shack, where she’s beaten and assaulted by Tadele (Girma Teshome), a man who says he is her husband to be.
Before this, we briefly meet Meaza (Meron Getnet), a tenacious women’s rights lawyer who runs a nonprofit. The first client we see her meet is an abused wife whose family tells her that her husband is a “kind man” and “hits you because he loves you.” And with that, the attitudes of rural 1996 Ethiopia are set. Naturally, Hirut and Meaza’s paths will cross.
Hirut, briefly left alone with a rifle, takes the opportunity to escape. She gets a good distance—really, none of the guys outside heard the squeaking shed door?—but is quickly encircled. Nonetheless, she is unafraid to brandish the weapon and shoot Tadele when he approaches her. Police appear—instantly!—before Tadele’s henchmen can react, and retain Hirut in an Addis Ababa station for murder. Guilt is not a question here; what authorities want to verify is Hirut’s age, because she looks older than 14 and that may affect her punishment.
Meaza is on the case before anyone even asks her to be, having heard the situation on the radio. She demands for Hirut to be released on bail so she can take her to the hospital.
From here, Difret is one big fight whose direction and outcome isn’t difficult to guess. Nearly everyone wants the death sentence for Hirut, and the misogyny behind it is meted out in illustrative moments throughout the story—lines such as “Abducting for marriage is our tradition!” during an informal court hearing; Hirut’s father saying of his daughters, “They are not boys, but they are good girls”; and a friend of Tadele’s telling Meaza, “Men abduct when they fall in love.” Even Meaza’s mentor, an apparently wealthy former lawyer, points out that a self-defense case has never been awarded to a woman.
Throughout, Hagere’s Hirut is dour, with the nonprofessional actor only showing some range of emotion toward the end of the film. (It’s way overdue when she breaks down and cries.) Getnet, a star in Ethiopia, is more watchable—her Meaza knows how to be tough with opponents and connect with the fragile Hirut, taking into consideration when the girl stays with her that she’s never seen modern conveniences—but still rather one-note.
Difret’s biggest downfall, however, is making the resistance they face too easy to brush off. Someone fires at their car; in the next scene, everything’s fine. Meaza’s foundation is shuttered—the majority of the area’s citizens believe death is, without condition, the answer for Hirut—but gee, some important people are speedily convinced otherwise.
Mehari may have had noble intentions in telling this girl’s story, and it’s one that needs to be heard. But in portraying one instance of change as coming so effortlessly, the bigger picture is disserviced.
Difret opens Friday at AFI Silver.