(Ethiopia 2014)

The Diplomatic Courier (http://www.diplomaticourier.com/difret/) explains the double meaning of the Amharic word “difret,” and hence the title. Based on actual events in the life of Aberash Bekele, who according to a Newsweek interview was never informed that her story was being made into a movie (http://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/16/rape-victim-who-fought-back-and-shamed-nation-297757.html), Difret is the fictionalized account of Hirut (Tizita Hagere), an adolescent in Ethiopia whose kidnapping for a forced marriage in 1996 ended in a landmark legal decision. Walking home from school in a remote village, she is surrounded by a group of men on horses, kidnapped, raped, and held captive in a hut. Her rapist tells her that he abducted her to marry her, a tradition in these parts of the world. When she escapes with his rifle, the men chase her into a forest and she shoots her attacker dead when he ignores her warnings to back off. Enter attorney and female rights activist Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), who takes the case and argues that Hirut acted in self-defense, ultimately placing her law practice, her livelihood, and her reputation in jeopardy.

Difret, to which Angelina Jolie attached her name as executive producer, is compelling but (probably not surprising) often difficult to watch. The sexism is not just rampant, it’s downright barbaric. Hirut is vilified: she’s treated like shit in police custody, no one will testify for her, and all the village men want her dead. She doesn’t understand how Ashenafi can live happily, not to mention respectably, as a single woman. Ashenafi encounters her own obstacles and resistance from the male authority figures- to a degree even from her mentor, an educated and seemingly progressive retired attorney.

Aside from the main issues it deals with, Difret demonstrates that change, for better or for worse, hurts. Zeresenay Mehari, who directed and wrote the script, maintains objectivity for the most part; he’s respectful to both sides, and he doesn’t hit you over the head with his moral stance. He does a nice job showing the tensions that develop when tradition gets in the way of social progress. Intentionally or not, he also shows the crucial role that the legal process and a ballsy attorney play in bringing about change. Mehari is efficient in giving us just what we need to know to follow along. As a result of his efficiency, however, his characters and the story as a whole lose a sense of dimension; both are superficial in the same way a TV crime drama is. Still, Difret is worth seeing.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-



The Amazing Nina Simone

(USA 2015)

Amazing, indeed– both her talent and her life. This thorough documentary follows singer Nina Simone from her humble beginnings in a tiny North Carolina mountain town where she was Eunice Wayman through her death following a stroke in 2003. A piano prodigy early on thanks to her father– who her brother tells us is where her talent came from– Wayman’s dream of being America’s first black female classical concert pianist was dashed when the Curtis Institute rejected her application. She turned to nightclubs, changed her name to Nina Simone so her mother wouldn’t find out where she was working, and the rest as they say is history.

Director Jeff L. Lieberman touches on a lot of interesting stuff from every period of her life: Simone’s first marriage to a cute but lazy French sponge, her bisexuality, her association with Langston Hughes and MLK, her attitude toward the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and her mental instability that worsened as she got older. He rounds it out with interviews of those who knew her, music and civil rights history, and academic commentary.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B


The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

(USA 2014)

Essentially an oral history of the Black Panther Party, Stanley Nelson covers every angle. Beginning with the social and political climate in American cities following desegregation, he moves through the Party’s formation, rise, fall, and ultimate splintering to demonstrate its impact. I found it immensely interesting for its historical perspective, but also remarkable for its overall objectivity. Interviewing members past and present who stayed and strayed, he leaves it to the viewer to decide whether the Party’s leaders and strategies were right or wrong.

(St. Anthony Main) A-

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival



(USA 2015)

Martin Luther King Jr. lived an amazing life, and it would take volumes to cover it. That’s why it was smart of director Ava DuVernay to focus on one key event—the freedom march on Selma—and not MLK’s entire life.

With Selma, DuVernay does a nice job downplaying the legacy and showing MLK as an imperfect man, flaws and fears and all. David Oyelowo lacks MLK’s intensity, but he pulls off the task of portraying the man. Seeing Oprah Winfrey play an unglamorous old lady is a surprise.

I have two issues here. One is technical: Selma looks and feels like a made-for-cable movie. The other issue is treatment: I would have liked the story to go a little deeper. Still, Selma is a film definitely worth its running time; in fact, it could have gone on and I probably would not have noticed.

With Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Jim France, Clay Chappell, Tom Wilkinson, Haviland Stillwell, André Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, David Morizot, David Dwyer, E. Roger Mitchell, Dylan Baker, Ledisi Young, Kent Faulcon, Stormy Merriwether, Niecy Nash, Corey Reynolds, Wendell Pierce, John Lavelle, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Lakeith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, Stan Houston, Tim Roth, Nigel Thatch, Tara Ochs, David Silverman, Charles Saunders, Dexter Tillis, Cuba Gooding Jr.

128 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC 600 North Michigan) B