The Ethiopian filmmaker talks to Elbert Wyche about his World Cinema Dramatic selection. Angelina Jolie serves as executive producer and presenter on Difret, which will screen in Berlin’s Panorama section in February.

“Difret in its widest meaning is courage,” says Zeresenay Berhane Mehari. “The second meaning is the act of being raped.”

Mehari’s Ethiopian World Cinema Dramatic competition entry recounts the story of an Ethiopian lawyer who defends a 14-year-old girl charged with killing a man who attempts to abduct her into marriage.

Mehari grew up in the then dictatorial Ethiopia. He knew from an early age that film-making was his calling and won a Diversity Visa lottery to go to the US, where he worked two jobs and got scholarships, grants and loans to pay for his USC education. 

When the director learned that he had been accepted into Sundance he called his wife, a producer on the film, screaming with joy.

“Once I started taking classes I discovered that not a lot of people knew about Ethiopia,” says Mehari. “I think there is a single story about Ethiopia and that’s the 1994 famine – for us that’s not what the country is all about.”

Difret is his attempt to shed light on an event that marks a pivotal moment in his native Ethiopia – an examination of a legal case that represents a paradigm shift in the way the country views and handles bride kidnappings.

“What pushed me to make this story is that we never question the things that are handed down to us traditionally,” he says. “This is one of many – I wanted to take that and see if we could talk about it and see how the country would respond.”