Filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari lives in Alexandria now, but he grew up in Ethiopia, and he manages to keep a foot planted in both worlds.
“I’m always going back to Ethiopia looking for stories,” Mehari said. “One foot is still there ... I’m a product of that culture.”
Mehari’s film, “Difret,” is one of 18 films screening during the 10th annual New African Film Festival running to March 20 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring.
Written and directed by Mehari, the move was co-produced by his wife, Mehret Mandefro, who grew up in northern Virginia.
Also born in Ethiopia, Mandefro went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria and is currently a faculty member at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.
Shot in Ethiopia, “Difret” is based on the true story of a groundbreaking court case in the mid-1990s in which a 14-year-old girl shot and killed a 29-year-old abductor who was following the centuries-old tradition of telefa.
Practiced in parts of rural Ethiopia, telefa allows a would-be husband to abduct, hide and rape a young woman until she becomes pregnant. As the future father, he can then negotiate with her family about marrying her.
In the movie, the girl, Hirut, is played by Tizita Hagere in her first screen role, and her legal-aid attorney, Meaza, is played by Ethiopian actress Meron Getnet.
“Difret” won audience favorite awards at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and Angelina Jolie recently signed as on as one of the executive producers.
Mehari, who came to the U.S. in 1996 to study film at the University of Southern California, said it was a chance encounter with the brother of the Ethiopian woman and legal-aid attorney, who defended the young girl in court, that led him to make the film.
“I do need to make a film about this great woman,” he said.
Mehari and Mandefro plan to attend the sold-out Saturday, March 15 screening of “Difret” to talk about their film.
“There are some terrific films and some high-profile titles. .... We’ve got the strongest lineup ever,” said Todd Hitchcock, festival director.
A detailed schedule for the films, which were shot in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Senegal, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Lethotho and South Africa, can be found at afi.com/silver.
“It’s definitely a window into the world of sub-Sahara Africa and the people living there today,” Hitchcock said. “That’s what international film festivals make possible for us.”
Opening the festival on Thursday was “Half of a Yellow Sun,” which is based on the 2006 book of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is about two sisters living through the 1967-1970 Nigerian-Biafran war.
Filmed in Nigeria, it stars British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “12 Years a Slave,” and British actress Thandie Newton.
Adichie, who recently released her latest book, “Americanah,” will be available for a Q&A and book signing between the two afternoon screenings on Sunday. The two screenings were sold out as of Wednesday, March 12.
The festival also features movies made in partnership with European directors, one of which us “Something Necessary,” directed by Judy Kibinge. One of the co-producers is the German director Tom Tykwer, who directed the innovative 1998 thriller, “Run Lola Run.”
The movie is about a victim and her perpetrator who meet in the aftermath of a post-election conflict in Kenya in 2007.
Anne (Kenyan actress Wanjiru) is a widow struggling to rebuild her farm. One of the construction men working on her house is Joseph (Walter Lagat), a gang member who took part in raping her and killing her husband.
Among the movies from countries formerly colonized by France are “Le President” and “Ninah’s Diary” from Cameroon; “Under the Starry Sky” from Senegal and “GriGris” from Chad.
“GriGris” is about a young man with a paralyzed leg who dreams of becoming a professional dancer but who instead turns to smuggling oil to pay his stepfather’s hospital bills. Along the way he meets a prostitute named Mimi, and they try to make a life together.
For the first time, the festival is also showing an animated film from Ivory Coast called “Aya of Yop City,” based on the series of graphic novels by husband-and-wife team Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie.
It’s the story of a 19-year-old girl who wants to study medicine but runs into opposition from family and friends who think she should get married.
“There’s some adult material. ... It’s very, very funny,” Hitchcock said.
“It was a very good year as far as choices available to us,” he said about the 2014 entries. “It’s wonderful to see [the festival] grow year to year.”