Financing the feature Difret, an unapologetic narrative about two Ethiopian women who had altered that country’s legal history, was a piecemeal struggle for writer-director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and me, the film’s producer.

Initially, there was a single equity investor that had signed up to fund the project, but then the stock market crashed in 2008 and the investor had to pull out. From that point on, it was an uphill battle.

Zee and I thought we were going to secure the funds through film grants. We had applied to multiple filmmaking grants and advanced to the final rounds in almost all of them, but we never managed to land one. As producer, I finally started asking for some feedback as to why we were failing. We heard several times that our project was too ambitious for first-time filmmakers. At the time, it was painful feedback to hear, but after a while it started to motivate us.

Tizita Hagere as Hirut Assefa and Meron Getnet as Meaza Ashenafi

Tizita Hagere as sexual assault victim Hirut Assefa and Meron Getnet as Meaza Ashenafi, her lawyer, in Difret

Truth be told, some of the feedback may have been fair, though we didn’t think it was when we received it. We had made the creative decision to shoot the film on 35mm (actually Zee had made that decision and I was less thrilled with the prospect because of what it meant for our budget). We were shooting the film in Ethiopia and there are no film labs in Ethiopia, which meant we were going to have to send our dailies out of the country for processing and arrange for a runner to go back and forth throughout production. When we budgeted this out, the cheapest option was sending our dailies to India and having them processed there. Between expired visas, arguments with custom officials about why our film could not go into the X-ray machine, and timing travel, there were many variables that could go wrong.

So perhaps “ambitious” was a fair characterization. But then again, did the grant reviewers actually know that there were no film labs in Ethiopia? Either way, we had actually picked a hard story to make. It was going to require thinking about non-traditional sources of financing. The harder a story is to tell, the more you have to believe in what you are doing. It turns out that was the easy part with Difret—we definitely believed.

So after we had been denied our third grant, it became quite clear that we were going to have to change our approach. That’s when we started to mobilize our inner circle of friends. One such friend was a woman by the name of Francesca Zampi, who signed on early to become an executive producer for Difret. Francesca had a background in theater and a Rolodex of connections that she was willing to offer to help finance the film. One of the first fundraising events she helped organize was an auction at a late-night cabaret in NYC, where we raised our initial $50,000 to begin pre-production.

Soon after, I decided to approach wealthy members of the Ethiopian community to explore the possibility of finding an investor. Finding patrons for artistic endeavors in this community turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. Why would a wealthy individual want to invest in a film project that had a risky return? It didn’t add up. So I knew the proposition would only make sense for someone who valued art and understood the larger cultural, socio-political mission of our film. Thankfully, we didn’t have to look far to find an investor who fit this profile: Julie Mehretu.

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The character Hirut is abducted in Difret

The character Hirut is violently abducted in Difret

Julie is an Ethiopian-American abstract painter that critics have called the most significant painter of her time. I knew Julie because she had supported some HIV advocacy work I had begun while living in New York. We weren’t close friends but I had a great deal of respect for her work and always found her to be warm and genuine. Julie and Zee met, completely separate from me, over a drink at a party at Agnes Gund’s house. I was supposed to be at the party with Zee and would have definitely introduced them had I been there, but it turns out they didn’t need me to make their own connection! Sometimes you find the people that are meant to find you. An organic conversation ensued and Zee told Julie all about the film. She was struck by the story and told him to follow up.

Julie was already on my list of potential investors to approach but I hadn’t made the call yet. So after that party, we sent her the script. A few weeks later, we were in New York City for other meetings and scheduled some time with her and her partner, Jessica. They had both read the script and loved it and quickly signed on to be executive producers.

With our private investors secured, the hope of beginning principal photography was in clear sight but we needed to raise an extra $30,000 to comfortably complete shooting. So we launched our first Kickstarter campaign for the film and ended up raising $37,000. We officially had enough money to shoot the film then, and production planning began. During this phase, the cost of developing the film started to concern us. Sending dailies to India was going to take a significant share of our productions funds. So we decided to have one more fundraising push that Francesca helmed in London. It was another auction and we were lucky enough to get a number of amazing items donated to help our efforts, including a guitar from Guy Berryman, the bassist for Coldplay. The event was a huge success and we were able to raise the money we needed to develop the film.  

At this point, our goal was to shoot the film so that we could have something to show people to help us raise the rest of the money. Principal photography was scheduled for 36 days and we finished the film in 34 days, despite many trials and tribulations. As soon as we got finished, we put together a short teaser to start showing people to help finance the rest. We soon got lucky. One of our executive producers sent the teaser to Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park. He appreciated what he saw, and together with his wife, Angela Stone, donated funds to help us begin post-production. It was a very generous donation that allowed us to begin editing the film and helped us get our first cut completed. The final push for fundraising took the form of a second Kickstarter campaign. This allowed us to secure post-production and finishing funds.

All in all, financing the film piecemeal meant the entire process took longer that we’d anticipated—three years in total. But it also meant we were able to retain a large portion of the equity in the project, as well as maintain creative control. Ultimately, the way that Difret was financed allowed us to stay true to what we had hoped for the film. We didn’t have to compromise on the vision. It was certainly a harder path to take, but in the end, the only way we could have made the film we wanted to make. MM

Difret opens in theaters October 23, 2015 and expands to additional cities in the following weeks, courtesy of Amplify and Truth Aid Media. All images courtesy of Truth Aid Media.