|View of Addis Ababa, seen as the seat of enlightenment in a new Ethiopian film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
With the venerable (42-year-old) Festival du Nouveau Cinema underway in Montreal, screening 30 films a day with a total of more than 430 entrants, I have so far managed to see two films, from Spain and Ethiopia, both of which have dealt with the problems in the modern world of young women. In my opinion, the Ethiopian film, Difret,(the word means Courage, or To Dare, but can also mean Rape) only the fourth film from that country ever to be shot in 35 mm, is an exceptionally gut-wrenching drama, acted with impressive authenticity by a team of what seems to be largely unprofessional actors, and one which provides a model for any film dealing with a particular incident in that it keeps its focus from beginning to end on the incident in question. Director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari has not devoted a shot or sequence that seems to be irrelevant to the telling of his story, and the force with which its dialogue is expressed builds up a nightmarish situation in which a young woman is trapped by what appears to be an ancient, and very troubling tradition.
A 14-year-old girl, Hirut, walking home from her school, where she has just been promoted to a higher grade, is surrounded by a group of violent young horsemen, who kidnap her, take her to a house where they beat and rape her, and where her main attacker claims to be in the process of finding a wife by the method --- abduction --- that is traditional in their community.
The girl, of course, is terrified by what has happened to her, but, when her tormentor is suddenly called away, and leaves his rifle behind, she has the courage to seize the rifle and run away. She is chased, and when her captors catch her she carries out her threat and shoots her attacker and prospective husband dead. This is a crime punishable in the local morality only with death, and when Hirut is handed over to police and the local District Attorney, her prospects for survival seem even more remote, as each of them shows themselves to be completely accepting of the traditional mores.
A volunteer group of women lawyers in Addis Ababa hears of the case, and one of them, played with riveting intensity by a well-known Ethiopian actress, Meron Getnet. turns up as counsel for the defence, but her application to pay the girl’s bail is rejected, because, the police sergeant says, “this girl is not going to get bail,” or words to that effect. But, says the lawyer, that is the law, and if there is a law, it has to be administered. The lawyer has to retreat, but she gets in touch with an elderly retired man of her acquaintance who has been a judge, and he agrees to intervene and ensure the girl is at least given bail.
The girl has two trials to undergo: the first is that of the village elders, shown with an amazingly concentrated ferocity as they meet under a tree, and come to the conclusion to delay application of the traditional death penalty, since the girl is now in police hands and facing a legal trial. Hirut’s elder sister had been a promising runner, but she had been abducted in exactly this way, and had become the wife of a drunk, with four children binding her to the traditional feminine role of household drudge. The lawyer discovers that Hirut’s younger sister, following Hirut’s abduction, has been withdrawn from school so that she could look after the animals and help with the farmwork. The lawyer has to obtain the father’s signature before she can get any authority in the case, but the father can neither read nor write, and there is an affecting scene where he agrees to sign with his thumbprint.
In an effort to help her young sister the girl runs away, but is caught by the police and returned before a howling mob of traditionalists braying for her death. Meantime, much to the dismay of her supporters, the woman lawyer, having been rebuffed by a lower court, decides to sue the Minister for Justice, who promptly disbars the association of women lawyers, and declares that the young woman no longer has authority to represent the victim.
The story comes to a happy conclusion: it is apparently based on a true story, one in which a similar case led to a change in the law in Ethiopia, banning abduction in these circumstances.
The film effectively uses the contrast between the city, seat of education and at least moderate enlightenment, and the hard-pressed countryside, full of impoverished and uneducated and tradition-bound farmers. The film’s story is as much about the battle for justice waged by the women lawyers as by the fight to free this young kid. I found that this film in the Amharic language of the country (which, on this evidence, seems to be a forceful and dynamic language) has an astonishing intensity that never lifts from the first moments to the last. It is one of the candidates for next year’s Academy Awards, for which 83 countries have submitted films in the foreign language category. I would say this film must have a chance of becoming at least one of the nine finalists, to be chosen in January. It is certainly much better than Canada’s entry, Mommy, by Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan.
The second film I have seen so far is called Hermosa Juventud (Beautiful Youth) a bittersweet Spanish film by director Jaime Rosales, about a young couple, lacking significant education, trapped by the recent desperate state of the Spanish economy, who can think of only one way to get some money, which is to collaborate in appearing in a pornographic film. Their state of mind is something that seems to be typical of youths of this sort almost everywhere these days --- aimless, disinterested in anything much, drifting, unemployed and virtually unemployable, and without the moral fibre or understanding of themselves, or the resources, to pull themselves up, as it were, by their bootstraps. Eventually the girl gets pregnant, and decides to keep the child, who becomes at once their most prized possession, and a weight around their neck that further diminishes their prospects in life. The girl decides she will leave her husband and child to try her luck in Germany, where she is shown to have no more luck than in the beginning of the film. This is a less involving film, perhaps because one’s sympathy for this aimless couple is somewhat attenuated, and the telling of the tale in no way matches the intensity shown in the Ethiopian film.
Still, these two films, taken together constitute a powerful indictment of how capitalism in these days of inequality is failing to provide the good life that used to be promised for the future that is now upon us.