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Stories We Have To Tell: Producer Mehret Mandefro Travels with Difret to Minnesota
Stories We Have To Tell: Producer Mehret Mandefro Travels with Difret to Minnesota

Stories We Have To Tell: Producer Mehret Mandefro Travels with Difret to Minnesota

Telling the truth about stories we have to tell is an uphill battle. Every step along the path tests a filmmaker’s resolve. The harder the story you pick the harder it is to make. That’s why you have to believe in the film you are making.

Difret was a really hard film to make for many reasons. It was a first-time director, it was shot on 35mm in Ethiopia, and we were casting first-time actors. Moreover, we were told several times that the project was too ambitious and unrealistic to finance – even though it was based on a true story. But we had to make it. 

The good news is that there are audiences who have to see your film as urgently as you had to make it and Sundance and the federal cultural agencies behind Film Forward help you find them. Film Forward is a Sundance program that helps filmmakers reach audiences they may otherwise never reach. And often times the audiences they help you find are the ones that really want to see your film. In fact I would qualify that further and say Film Forward seeks out the audiences and communities that actually need to see your film. 

There is nothing like connecting with a member of the audience that felt like you made your film for their very specific life story. It is the most validating moment for a filmmaker and reminds you, like no amount of critical acclaim can, why you went on the journey of making your film in the first place. 

I had one of those moments in Minneapolis with the Film Forward program.

There was a young Ethiopian woman sitting in the back of the audience at the Q&A for the Difret screening at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College. She walked into the Q&A late so she caught my eye. She looked like she was in her mid-20s and she looked fairly reserved in her demeanor. As I spoke she started recording bits of what I had to say on her iPhone and took several pictures. I noticed she was taking pictures because when I leaned in to answer a question she actually re-positioned herself to get a clearer shot. At the time, I was thinking, I wish she would stop taking pictures and just ask a question. And then she finally did. 

By her third word, the tears start falling. The last thing I was expecting her to do was cry. The disconnect between her reserved demeanor and the visible tears left others in the crowd confused especially because they couldn’t hear her words. She had more of a comment than a question but what she said was something so many young Ethiopians who have watched our film have shared with me over and over again so understanding her was easy. She told us how proud she was of us for making a film that really connects to the way she saw Ethiopia but more importantly captures the struggle of her generation to connect with the Ethiopia of their parent’s generation. By the end of her comment, I had some tears too. 

Unfortunately, she left before we had the chance to connect. She had scribbled her contact details on a small cloth pouch, the kind you usually get from a jewelry store, and left it with an audience member to give to me. I put the pouch in my purse and can already tell you it will be a memento I keep to remind me why we have to tell stories. The fact that she wrote the note on cloth also made it literally a material expression of the connection Difret had forged between her need and mine. 

Although I didn't actually get to speak to her I didn’t have to. I have met so many young Ethiopian-Americans who feel like Difret is a bridge between them and their parents. And every time I see and hear the ways they have been moved by the film, I am reminded of the fact that audiences need to hear untold stories as much as we have to make them. Programs like Film Forward make sure they do. 

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