By Nijla Mumin |

Presented by Angelina Jolie, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s feature film debut “Difret” now has an October 23, 2015 theatrical release date set, making it a potential awards season contender.

Producer Mehret Mandefro and director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari at the 64th Berlinale International Film Festival (Berlin, Germany)

Producer Mehret Mandefro and director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari at the 64th Berlinale International Film Festival (Berlin, Germany)

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.

Continue reading the interview on Shadow and Act
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