Trained as a filmmaker and cinematographer, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari had a clear intention for his project, Difret. "From the get-go, my target audience was made up of the young girls and boys of Ethiopia. I said, 'I'm going to make the film for them and I'm going to talk about a societal issue that we have been neglecting for centuries: abduction for marriage.' I knew if I didn't talk about this issue, no one was going to do it." The resulting independent film is based on a true story, a landmark case that helped change telefa—the tradition of violent abduction of teenage girls for marriage. In 1997, Meaza Ashenafi—founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association—successfully defended Aberash Bekele, who was 14 years old when she was on trial (and facing death) for killing her abductor. He was realistic about the odds: "I knew only about three percent of scripts written are made and distributed," he says. "I was ready for that and prepared as much as anyone could be." Mehari, whose film won an Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, talks to about what he learned working toward a dream that his heart wouldn't give up on.

1. Find the 1-in-3,000 Person Who Is Right for Your Project

Two weeks before we started filming, I was ready to stop production because we couldn't find [an actress to play] the little girl. The young girl was 14 years old when she killed her abductor. I wasn't able to find a trained actor for the part. The year we were filming, about 100 or 110 films were made in Ethiopia. There was not a single part written for a child or a teenager. That meant I had to look for someone outside of the acting community. We printed out leaflets and flyers—5,000 of them—and handed them out to young girls at elementary and high schools. I saw 3,000 girls in order to find this one actor, because the film's success depended on her. When I saw [Tizita Hagere], I knew she was the one. She was the person I was looking for. It felt like it was meant to be.

2. Be Ready to Write the $21,000 Check That Will Give You Peace of Mind

We had 2 million dollars' worth of gear with us—almost 2,000 pounds of gear. [The insurance check] was the biggest check we wrote. There was no other way. Four insurance companies denied us. They said they weren't going to insure anything that was going to Ethiopia. We finally found this one insurance company and they basically said, "It's going to cost you a lot."

3. Know That You Will Have to Come Up with a Donkey-and-Mule Solution on the Fly

Filming on location in Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, and in the rural countryside, infrastructure was a big problem. While we were location-scouting in the summer, we found a little creek—something we didn't think much of—45 minutes from a very beautiful, secluded village. We thought we could get the trucks over it. When we finally decided to shoot, at the end of the country's rainy season, that little creek had become a river. You can't get any trucks up there, so we used donkeys, mules and ourselves, putting the gear on all of our backs. You have to love donkeys and mules.

4. Remember the Little Word That Can Protect Your Work

[During the initial financing stages], a couple of producers heard about the story; they thought the script was really good and offered to buy it. That would have been really awesome—I could have paid off some student loans. But I wanted the film to have an Ethiopian voice and to have an Ethiopian look, so I said no to their offers. The producers wanted to finance the film, but they wanted to do it in English, with known, famous actors and they didn't want to shoot in Ethiopia, which completely changed the whole narrative of the story for me. I said no to that, as well.

5. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for the Person (or People) Who Will Fight As Hard As You Do

The biggest blow for us came in 2008. We had a hedge-fund manager interested in the film who wanted to budget the entire film. We started talking to cinematographers, film editors, crew members and producers. Then the financial collapse happened. Our would-be executive producer lost a ton of money and he pulled out of the project. That was rock-bottom for us.

I went to Ethiopia and talked to Meaza Ashenafi [the founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and the subject of the movie] and was physically ready to put the story aside and focus on something else. In 2009, I met Dr. Mehret Mandefro, the producer, and she ended up finding a very creative way of raising money for the film. The biggest turning point was finding someone like her, who truly believed in the script and truly believed in my vision and my work. She did whatever it took to make this movie happen. It was just the two of us for a long time. Then we started meeting other people who were interested. Little by little, we became like five people working on this. Then, when we went to Ethiopia, we became a big team. During the process, we fell in love and got married and now have two kids.

If you look hard enough, you will find the actress you want, you will find the story you want to tell and you will find the right people to work with. You can't do it alone.

Zeresenay Berhane Mehari is the writer and director of Difret.


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