DIFRET: The Abduction of a Film in Ethiopia [Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam]

What is the difference between the abduction of a young girl in a village and the “abduction” of a film by a young filmmaker in a capital city?

“DIFRET” is an Amharic language feature film based on a “true story” of a teenager named Hirut (Tizeta Hagere, depicted in Sundance poster above) who is a victim of the inhuman and barbaric practice of “telefa” or abduction of “child brides” in certain parts of Ethiopia. (The word “difret” has multiple meanings including “courage”, “the act of raping a woman and  dishonoring her,  and “insolent audacity”.) The film is written and directed by Ethiopian filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and executive produced by Angelina Jolie. DIFRET won the 2014 Audience Award at both the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. The film has been screened in various locations in the U.S., Europe, South Africa, Israel and Australia. (For a fascinating YouTube discussion of DIFRET with filmmaker Zeresenay and commentary by extraordinary young Ethiopian  women and others, click here.)

According to a review in Variety, DIFRET is the story of a teenage girl who was “walking home from school one day [when] 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. And no matter that Hirut has been raped and beaten, local justice decrees that she be executed for murder (then buried with her victim).” (The barbaric crimes of “telefa” or abduction and rape of teen girls and child marriages are tolerated and condoned not only in parts of Ethiopia but also in many other parts of Africa. (Fifteen of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriages are in Africa.)  Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), an indefatigable lawyer who had founded her own legal aid group takes up Hirut’s legal defense. The film is said to show the underlying tension between civil and customary law and the subjugation of rural women in certain parts of Ethiopia.

By all accounts, the film is not at all political or critical of the regime in Ethiopia today. It does not sideswipe or portray the regime in bad light. According to the Sundance Film Festival, “Ethiopian-born writer/director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari portrays, with panoramic beauty, the complexity of a country’s transformation toward equal rights, featuring the courageous generation that dares to own it.”  A review in the Huffington Post observed that the film depicted the way in which Hirut and her lawyer Meaza, “succeeded in their legal challenge to telefa, the ancient Ethiopian practice of abduction into marriage. The film about Hirut’s case marks a courageous moment that opened a new and better chapter in Ethiopian history.”

Zeresenay  In March 2014, filmmaker Zeresenay explained why the Ethiopian premiere was delayed for several months. It appears Zeresenay wanted to have the world premiere of DIFRET in Ethiopia but was completely overtaken by the sudden and wide international acclaim the film received from the very beginning. Zeresenay explained:

[We] finished cutting the film in the winter [January 2014] and right after that we were accepted at Sundance; and we had to go to Sundance. And five days later, we were in Berlin. So we didn’t have time to actually go to Ethiopia because we wanted to do it proper… Proper means actually having an opening, a premiere, acknowledging the actors, the people who helped make the film, and inviting people that are interested in the media and film and people close to this issue.

Zeresenay kept his word and arranged for a “proper Ethiopian premiere” in September 2014, but he was completely blindsided to the oncoming train wreck.  He had simply underestimated the bottomless depravity and vengefullness of the thug regime in Ethiopia. In an interview with film director Roger Ross Williams at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, Zeresenay was asked if he was concerned about the potentially controversial nature of DIFRET if shown in Ethiopia, implying that it could be banned. Zeresenay was fully confident there would be no problems at all.

Williams: This is a serious issue [child bride abductions], a complicated issue. It is probably going to be controversial in Ethiopia.

Zeresenay: This is a true story that happened and the people have participated and voiced their opinions when the case was televised and on the radio and in the newspapers every day.  I don’t think we are going to have any trouble in bringing the story alive again. It is not even a concern for me. If it would be a concern, the only thing that I might think will be a little bit of a challenge for us is to be able to have the audience get into a different style of film making… I have a good feeling about it.

Zeresenay simply did not understand the perverted thug mind. He naively believed the thugs in power in Ethiopia operate in a rational mindset and will actually let him show his film in the country. He was overly optimistic.  So the young Ethiopian filmmaker was left to contemplate the wisdom of the verse of the old Scottish poet Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes of Mice and Men/oft go awry,/And leave us nothing but grief and pain,/For promised joy!/.

The joy Zeresenay promised in March turned to grief, pain and humiliation for him and the entire acting and production crew of DIFRET on September 4, 2014.  Indeed, DIFRET (courage) proved to be the ultimate showcase of the cowardice, poltroonery and asininity for the regime in Ethiopia. In an incredible YouTube video of the pre-screening events leading up to the showing of the film, a disconcerted, embarrassed and profusely apologetic Zeresenay, carrying his son in one hand and a microphone in the other, announced from the stage:

Distinguished guests, ambassadors, we were just told by the police that we have to stop this film because there is a court order on it. We have not been informed prior to this. The Ministry of Culture knows about this and the government knows about this. This is the first time we are hearing it. This is obviously an attack on us and I am really sorry for this to happen and I hope we’ll see you again…

The abrupt and unceremonious shutdown of the premiere just seconds (not minutes) before the screening of the film hit the audience like a thunderbolt. There was confusion  in the audience bordering on pandemonium followed by boisterous applause to demonstrate support for the crestfallen Zeresenay.   The beautiful young actress Meron Getnet sat stunned and speechless. She is visibly shocked and confused. She looked around in total disbelief trying to get someone to tell her what she has just heard is not true.  No one does and she realizes she is living through her worst nightmare. Everyone is shocked by the announcement. Irate women sitting behind Meron angrily interrogated each other, “Why? Why? Why is this being done?” In her seat, Meron clasps her palms in the traditional praying position as if to implore God’s intervention to save her and her country from such cruel public humiliation. An unidentified interviewer asks her how she feels. (How does one really feel when one’s heart is yanked out before the entire world!?) Meron is visibly brokenhearted. But she puts on a calm and brave face. She is struggling to hide her outrage and fury. She is fighting tears; but she does not breakdown though she is manifestly broken hearted. She answers the interviewer with the supreme confidence and dignity of a diva. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I can’t say anything. I know nothing of what happened.” Then she opens her “praying hands” as would a torture victim before his torturer. The interviewer nudges Meron. “People were waiting for it [film] with great expectation. Wouldn’t it have been possible to stop its showing before people came to see it.” Meron again answers with grace, equanimity, imperturbability and pure class, “There is nothing I can say. I wish they would honor the profession (of acting) and stopped it before it was scheduled for showing or after it had been shown. I am really saddened.” In those few words, Meron told the story of Beauty and the Beastly Regime. I could not have been more proud of her!

There is no question that the invited guests were all pissed off. Each face in the video displayed a different emotion – muted anger, suppressed outrage, sheer exasperation, total disappointment, utter resentment, unspeakable shame, total irritation, public humiliation, intolerable disgrace and dishonor, gratuitous dehumanization and cynical bitterness. An overwhelming and palpable feeling of hurt had overcome the audience. People chatted with each other in confusion and disgust. Some tried to comfort Zeresenay who stood in the hallway holding his son and apologizing profusely  for the cancellation of the screening. The interviewer asks an Ethiopian man in the audience how the “banning” (censorship) of the film is likely to reflect on Ethiopia given the fact that the internationally renowned actress Angelina Jolie had been behind it. The man manifestly fuming responds, “I reserve my comment.” Another visibly angry man tells the interviewer, “Whenever there is something good, there is always an obstacle. Please leave me alone!” Another grief-stricken man comments, “It is very sad. I have never seen anything like this before. It is very sad. I don’t understand what the reason is. It is sad for the actors, for the audience, the distinguished guests. It is a sad thing. I am very sorry.” As the video recording ends, a visibly outraged woman scurries out of the theater chastising the interviewer, “Just leave me alone! Leave me alone!”

The foreign dignitaries, ambassadors and diplomats filed out of the theater with a stiff upper lip. Diplomats have a peculiar way of carrying themselves when they are totally humiliated. They stiffen their shoulders, purse their lips, straighten their gait and pretend not to notice anything around them. They act as if nothing has happened. As cynical as it sounds, I thought there was a bit of poetic justice in seeing the diplomats getting a taste of  the indignity and humiliation that Ethiopians suffer every single day at the hands of a thug regime. “Your Excellencies, welcome to our world!”

Why is DIFRET banned?

No one knows why DIFRET is banned except the ignoramuses who banned it. Let’s make it absolutely clear: The film is not in the least political. It is not critical of the regime. It merely tells the story of a barbaric institution of child abduction and sexual exploitation which should be eradicated in the 21st Century. As the Sundance review noted, the film depicts Ethiopia “with panoramic beauty, the complexity of a country’s transformation toward equal rights.”

So, what is it in the film that scared the hell out of the regime and made it run to kangaroo court to get a banning order? What harm could possibly come from showing the film to a gathering of a few hundred Ethiopians and diplomats?

By any rational calculation, the film should have been a feather in the regime’s cap. DIFRET provided the ideal opportunity for the regime leaders to reinvent themselves as human righst defenders and get on their white horse and plunge a lance into the heart of that barbaric institution of child bride abduction and child marriages not only in Ethiopia but also throughout Africa. The regime could have used DIFRET to launch a media campaign in Ethiopia to attack the abominable practice, agitate and mobilize the society for change in a range of other harmful cultural and societal norms and practices which subjugate women.  The regime could have started and taken a central role in the public conversation and debate on the issue of child marriages and child brides. It could have galvanized global support and action to empower Ethiopian and African women to fight back against gender discrimination and sexual exploitation.

It never ceases to amaze me!  Whenever I see the vengeful, irrational and imbecilic actions of the regime and swear (and bet by bottom dollar) they can’t stoop any lower than that, they prove me wrong. They stoop lower than that!

In April 2014, the African Union adopted “The Addis Ababa Declaration on Ending Child Marriage in Africa”. Ethiopia is fifth among the top ten countries where child marriages are rampant  according to a 2013 study of the Council on Foreign Relations. The regime in Ethiopia had also announced its intentions to eradicate the criminal practice of “telefa” and child marriages within a decade.

The screening of DIFRET presented an unprecedented public relations bonanza for the regime to rehabilitate its tattered international image. They could have “owned” DIFRET. They could have shown up at the premiere, held a press conference and put on a show grandstanding and showboating how they made the film possible, how hard they are working to eliminate the barbaric practices of “telefa” and child marriages and how the film could be used to help get the message out into the various communities affected by the problem and so on. They could have gotten enormous positive press mileage and good will by promoting the film (instead of banning it). I just can’t figure out what is wrong with these guys: They never, never  miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity!

The fact of the matter is that forcing and abducting children into marriage is a crime against humanity and banned by numerous international conventions. (I suspect in the days of the Caveman, it may have been acceptable to slug the woman on the head, drag her by the hair and whisk her away to the cave as a bride. It is absolutely not acceptable in the 21st Century!”) Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that marriage should be “entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Young teen girls are incapable of giving legal consent. A number of international agreements including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) condemn child marriages and all forms of exploitation of women. A year ago, the UN Human Rights Council,  the leading UN body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the world,  adopted the first-ever UN Resolution on Child, Early and Forced Marriage calling states to undertake programs to “prevent and eliminate the practice of child, early and forced marriage, which disproportionately affects women and girls.” The odious practice of “telefa”, “child brides” and “child marriages” in Ethiopia, Africa and anywhere else in the world must be condemned, uprooted and eradicated. I do not care if there is custom that goes back a thousand or ten thousand  years that justifies the practice. It must be stopped and eradicated from the face of the earth by any and all means necessary!!!

On the other hand, considering the film from the perspective of the regime which does not  give a hoot about human rights, I still argue that it would have made business sense to let the screening go on without a hitch. After all, the regime thrives on begging, handouts and panhandling. I can easily imagine how the regime could have used the film to hustle the good-hearted Americans and calculating Europeans for handouts and snag millions of dollars in aid to fight child marriages, channel the money to their crony-held “civil society organizations” and squirrel it away into their offshore bank accounts. I can’t imagine how they would let such a big chance for free money slip between their fingers! Again, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity!

Could there be other reasons for banning DIFRET? Perhaps. Could it be that DIFRET was banned because the regime leaders thought that barbaric practice of abduction of child brides just does not go with the international image they want to create for themselves? How could a regime that is building the “largest dam” in Africa allow child bride abductions and marriages? How could a regime that has been growing the economy at an annual rate of over 11 percent for the past decade allow child bride abductions and marriages?  How could a regime that has completed the finest light rail in all of Africa in less than three years (when it has taken “the big country of Virginia” seven years to do less) allow child bride abductions and marriages? How could a delusional regime….?

My personal theory why DIFRET is banned

For what is it worth, my personal “theory” about the “banning” of DIFRET is a very simple one. At the superficial level, I think they shut down the film seconds before it was to start to demonstrate to every one that they are the “BOSS”. The can do whatever they want to do. At a much deeper level,  I think the film ate out their guts. DIFRET is a  film about Ethiopia (underscore the word “Ethiopia”); and  it has has brought great honor and artistic recognition to Ethiopia. Above all, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari in making DIFRET has shown his pride in being Ethiopian (underscore the phrase “n being Ethiopian”). Every review of the film I have read credits him as the talented “young Ethiopian filmmaker”. In the film, Zeresenay has shown his dedication for the eradication of a harmful institution that has destroyed the lives of millions of his Ethiopian sisters.  The fact of the matter is that the word  “Ethiopia” triggers uncontrollable convulsions (a sickness of the soul)  in some people.

Excuse me for being blunt! If Zeresenay had made a film that advanced a narrow ethnic supremacist ideology, the regime would have lionized him. The regime would have forced the people in the “kebeles” and neighborhoods to see the film. But DIFRET is not about politics at all; it is quintessentially about human rights. It is about the rights of young women to bee free from being raped by village  thugs under the pretext of social “custom” and “tradition”. It is about the dignity of women as women. It is about exposing child rape and child marriages in the name of tradition. That is what DIFRET is all about.

I will predict that in the next decade Zeresenay will be the most respected and popular filmmaker not only in Ethiopia but also Africa. I am proud of him for showing supreme courage (difret) in making DIFRET.

A Schadenfreude Regime: The thrill of  witnessing and enjoying other people’s pain, suffering and misfortune

There is a psychological explanation for what the regime did in stopping DIFRET seconds (not minutes) before its Ethiopian premiere screening. It is called “Schadenfreude”, a German word that has found its way into the English language to describe people who get  supreme pleasure from witnessing the pain, suffering and misfortunes of others. Schadenfreude is a form of sadism in which perpetrators inflict pain, suffering and misfortunes on others and in doing so find joy and self-affirmation for themselves. For people possessed by the demons of schadenfreude, the grief, sadness and disappointment of  others makes them happy; the pain of others makes them joyous; the suffering of others gives them total ecstasy.

Consider this: The regime leaders in Ethiopia could have stopped the screening of DIFRET from being filmed in the first place. They could have stopped it from being advertised and prohibited its discussion in the public forums of the country. They could have denied Zeresenay permission to show the film when he applied to the “Ministry of Culture”. They could have had the decency to tell Zeresenay the morning of the premiere to cancel the show and save him the embarrassment. No! No! No! They had to do it seconds (not minutes) before the film was to roll on the screen. Why? Because they wanted to experience the thrill of seeing the mental anguish, suffering and disappointment of the actors, producers, directors, all who helped to make the film successful and the expectant audience at the screening. The regime leaders are joyous seeing the young filmmaker embarrassed and humiliated before an audience of prominent Ethiopians and international diplomats. They delight in seeing Meron humiliated and fighting tears. They feel jubilant seeing a joyful audience psychologically crushed. That is the essence of Ethiopia’s Schadenfreude Regime!

A number of empirical studies have shown that people with low self-esteem, strong feelings of envy and jealousy and intense feelings of inferiority are more likely to practice schadenfreude than  people who have high self-esteem and a sense of well-being. (See e.g. van Dijk, et al., “Self-Esteem, Self-Affirmation, and Schadenfreude”). In my studies of the psychopathology of dictatorships, I have concluded that practitioners of dictatorship are mentally ill; and those who practice thugtatorship are afflicted by an incurable sickness of the soul unleashed by an ever-metastasizing cancer of hate. I believe those who run the schadenfreude regime in Ethiopia have a sickness of a soul. They really can’t help it! They violate and show depraved indifference to human rights because they are themselves human only in form.  They have lost all connection to life and what makes life meaningful. They walk around like zombies possessed of a chronic sense of fear gnawing away at their hollow and nugatory existence. The only way they feel whole, the only way they experience joy and happiness is by inflicting pain and suffering on others. Their sense of well-being depends entirely on the exertion of hate-driven aggression; they feel safe only when they can make others feel insecure and alarmed. They have internalized so much hate that they are incapable of experiencing or showing the elementary human feelings of sympathy, empathy, compassion or love. They are simply incapable of seeing and experiencing joy in their young people achieving international recognition and acclaim for their artistic efforts. They are so blinded by hate that the little joy of young artists casts them into deep depression. They believe that if someone is chosen, beloved or esteemed, that necessarily means they are hated, disrespected and rejected. The leaders of the regime in Ethiopia have so much negative energy around them that even subatomic particles disintegrate in their presence! I pity them!!!

The problem of evil in Ethiopia

Over the years, I have commented extensively on the problem of evil in Ethiopia. In my commentary, The Audacity of Evil in Ethiopia, I struggled to understand the evil viciously committed by ordinary or sub-ordinary people in positions of political power. I argued that the leaders in the regime cheat, rob, steal and kill with absolute impunity because they believe there is no force on earth that can hold them accountable. I also expressed my concern about the evil of passive complicity by ordinary and extraordinary people who stand silent in the face of evil. What is it that paralyzes those “good men and women” who can stand up, resist and defend against evil to cower and hide? Why do they pretend and rationalize to themselves that there really is no evil but in the eye of the beholder? What evil binds the blind, silent and deaf majority? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

In my commentary, “Ethiopia: Beyond the Hubris of Evil”, I tried to explain the political sadism of the regime in Ethiopia. I argued that the regime leaders were afflicted by a malignant hubris of the heart and depravity of the mind. I suggested the hubristically evil have certain basic characteristics. They believe they are untouchable and accountable to no one. They have a sociopathic personality which prevents them from maintaining a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. For them, there is no law to curtail their excesses because they believe their words and acts are ipso facto law. Feeding at the trough of moral nihilism (whatever they say is right or wrong), they are driven by a deep psychological need to degrade, humiliate, demean, brutalize and dehumanize their victims as a means to self-respect and personal empowerment. When they degrade and humiliate their defenseless and helpless victims, the derive a perverse pleasure of omnipotence, superiority and self-affirmation. For the hubristically evil, indifference is their modus vivendi (way of life) and cruelty their modus operandi (way of doing things).

The regime’s war on young Ethiopians journalists, human rights activists and artists

We must not look at events in isolation. The regime in Ethiopia has been waging a long war of attrition against Ethiopia’s best and brightest young journalists, political leaders, human rights and civic society activists. Ethiopia had its first dynamic young woman political party leader in Birtukan Midekssa. What an amazing role model she remains to this day for all of Ethiopia’s young people, particularly young women! Meles Zenawi personally ordered her incarceration with a hearing and declared to the world that her release was a “dead issue. Full stop.” What a self-prophesy for Meles!

The Meles regime ordered the imprisonment of Tewdros Kassahun (Teddy Afro, arguably the most popular Ethiopian singer of his generation) on bogus charges of auto hit and run. Teddy is an artist who sings only of love, harmony, truth, reconciliation and unity of all Ethiopians. They even tried to orchestrate  vicious lies about him trying to paint him in their own dark color of hate. Love always shines and so does Teddy.

They imprisoned Andualem Aragie, a young, brilliant Ethiopian lawyer with dazzling and prodigious forensic skills. His total dominance during the 2010 televised election debates will be remembered in Ethiopian history for generations to come.

They imprisoned Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist of impeccable integrity who has won nearly every major international press award. When the history of the free press is written, I have no doubts the cover page of that book will have Eskinder’s picture.

They imprisoned Reeyot Alemu, the young Ethiopian woman journalist who has received various international press awards. Reeyot had the guts to confront Meles Zenawi on his white elephant “Nile Dam”, or whatever it is they call it now. Like Eskinder, they offered Reeyot her freedom if she apologized and begged for a pardon. Like Eskinder, Reeyot turned it down.

They imprisoned the young Ethiopian journalist Woubshet Taye and exiled hundreds of other young Ethiopian journalists.

They imprisoned  the young Ethiopian human rights advocate Abubekar Ahmed for peacefully advocating religious freedom and non-government interference in religious affairs.

They imprisoned the young Ethiopian academic and human rights advocate Bekele Gerba on bogus charges of “conspiring to overthrow Ethiopia’s government by force.”

Will the actors and producers of DIFRET be the next targets? Will Ethiopian filmaker  Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, Ethiopian actress Meron Getnet, Ethiopian actress Tizita Hagere and even American Angelina Jolie now be charged under the “anti-terrorism law” for engaging in terrorist film making in Ethiopia? Or is the real message to these young Ethiopian artists, “Leave the country and go into exile. We don’t want you here!”

Is art imitating life?

I believe yanking (tilfet) of the screening of DIFRET by regime thugs is no different than the abduction (telfet) of young girls by village thugs. By yanking the screening, the schadenfreude regime in Ethiopia has flagrantly abducted the rule of law, trampled on its own Constitutional guarantees of free expression and proven itself to be the evil monster I have depicted it to be for years. What the cackle of ignoramuses in the regime do not realize is that any time you ban a film, its mystique and popularity soars. The history of film throughout the world shows that films banned by governments achieve instant and lasting popularity. In many countries, films have been banned for being offensive, caricaturing political leaders, creating stereotypical representations of groups, glorification of gangsters and other criminals, promoting the occult, graphically representing violence and so on. In the end, the act of banning itself has made the films wildly popular. The most controversial films in the U.S. have been among the highest grossing!  If the regime is offended by the film for any reason, it would have been simply prudent to have ignored it; within weeks interest would have subsided and they could have gone on with business as usual. Now DIFRET will be an international sensation, thanks to the regime! (My personal thanks, too!)

The bunker (bush) and siege mentality of the regime

I believe the leaders of the regime in Ethiopia have retreated into a  bunker” and “siege” mentality and locked themselves up in an echo chamber where they could only hear each other’s voices. A bunker mentality is “an attitude of extreme defensiveness and self-justification based on an often exaggerated sense of being under persistent attack from others.” A siege mentality is a “shared feeling of victimization and defensiveness, a collective state of mind whereby one believes that one is being constantly attacked, oppressed, or isolated in the face of the negative intentions of the rest of the world.”

The fact of the matter is that the regime leaders live in Addis Ababa, a cosmopolitan city, but have kept intact their bush mindset. To put it simply, you can take the thug out of the bush but you can’t take the bush out of the thug. That is the core problem with the regime. They have never been able to outgrow that good ole “bush feeling”. Except for the paid public relations pieces that appear in a few newspapers from time to time, the regime is always getting hammered. They receive a steady and increasingly acerbic criticism of their actions in the international media. They are condemned by one or another international human rights and press organization every week. They are hammered by Ethiopians in the Diaspora every day. As a result, they have made a tactical psychological retreat into the bush bunker mentality. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, goes the old saying. If you live in a bunker and siege mentality and listen only to the voices in the echo chamber, everything looks, walks and sounds like an enemy. Batten down the hatches!

Young Ethiopians are dishonored in their own country and honored internationally

The sad irony of Ethiopia’s youth today is that their best and brightest  achievers get recognition internationally and receive humiliation ad dishonor in their own country. Young Ethiopian journalists and artists are honored the world over but humiliated, criminalized, censored and jailed in their own country. The regime treats them like dirt! All I can tell them is not to be  discouraged. What does it benefit them to be recognized and appreciated by a cackle of ignorant thugs?

Special thanks and deep apologies to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are very special friends of Ethiopia. They have not only adopted a child from Ethiopia (Zahara, 9) but also donated $2 million to help fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in that country. I humbly ask them to practice the divine teaching, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I thank Ms. Jolie for her wisdom. At the world premiere of DIFRET in February 2014, Ms. Jolie affirmed the eternal truth about  the “courage of brave individuals [to] awaken the conscience of a society.”

This film is a strong moment for art in Ethiopia. It is inspiring to see such an important story so beautifully illustrated with such creative talent. It draws out the richness of Ethiopian culture and shows how important legal advances can be made while respecting local culture. It is a story that gives hope for Ethiopia’s future, and for other countries where countless girls grow up without the protection of laws that shield them and their bodies, and shows how the courage of brave individuals can awaken the conscience of a society.

DIFRET is a film about the courage of one Ethiopian teenage girl to defend her dignity, the courage of her young Ethiopian woman lawyer to stand against the dehumanization of women, the courage of a young Ethiopian filmmaker to educate the world about the dehumanization of Ethiopian  women and the courage of many young Ethiopian actors, actresses, directors and other technical experts!  All Ethiopians should be proud of them and support them!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, anthropologist


Post Script– I hope the diplomats, ambassadors and other luminaries who came for the screening of DIFRET learned a simple lesson. One meaning of the Amharic word “difret” is petulant audacity, insolent, arrogant and contemptuous insolence. The cancellation of the screening seconds before it was scheduled to start shows the utter contempt and disdain the regime has for the diplomatic community. For the members of the American and European diplomatic communities who attended the aborted screening of DIFRET, I just want to say that you have received the wages of your billions of dollars in annual aid. The least you can do now is issue a strong warning: A dog should not bite the hand that feeds it.

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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