Why Did Julie Mehretu Sell a Painting to Finance a Film Produced by Angelina Jolie?

The heart-wrenching story of an Ethiopian girl motivated both power women to act.

New York-based painter Julie Mehretu has helped finance a film produced by Angelina Jolie-Pitt by selling a major artwork. Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia, was moved by the film’s storyline, adapted from of the candid account of a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl who fell victim to the brutal local tradition of marriage by abduction and rape.

Speaking to Vogue.comMehretu, who now advocates for making the issue of abduction a US foreign policy priority, revealed that she got involved in the film Difret (which premieres in New York on October 23) even though she didn’t know the film’s director, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, and wasn’t familiar with his previous work. It was the script that moved her. “The word difret means ‘courage’ in Amharic, and I actually thought what they were trying to do with this film was courageous,” Mehretu explained. “I sold a work from my collection to help raise the budget for it.”

Though the artist doesn’t name the work she sold, or the amount of money raised by the transaction, the film’s entire budget stands at $750,000.

This is the first time the painter, who has dealt with themes such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement in her large-scale, detailed canvases, gets involved with cinema. Much like her friend and fellow artist Tacita Dean, the director, Mehari, used analog film, with impactful results. “The film itself was better than any of us could have imagined. Mehari is committed to film as a medium, an art form, so he made Difret in actual photochemical film, not digitally, even though that would have been by far the easiest solution,” Mehretu told Vogue.com.

Sticking to this artistic choice came at a cost. The film was shot on location in Ethiopia, and daily runs had to be sent to India to be processed, as no such facilities are available in the region. Not to mention the political realities of making the film there: The 14-year-old girl’s story made waves in the mid 1990s, as the rape victim shot her abductor and claimed self-defense.

Local star Meron Getnet plays the pro-bono lawyer who fights against the cruel tradition that, although constitutionally illegal, is still currently being practiced by over 50 percent of the country according to Mehretu.

“[Difret] sets an example of how even the most deep-rooted cultural traditions can be transformed from within. It’s essentially a story of homegrown Ethiopian heroism by two women who challenge the longstanding practice of forced child marriage,” Mehretu explains. “I was committed to helping make this film happen in any way I could.”

Angelina Jolie-Pitt Photo: Angelinajoliedaily.com

Angelina Jolie-Pitt
Photo: Angelinajoliedaily.com

The film’s power to effect change in the lives of young girls in Ethiopia was also an important reason why Angelina Jolie-Pitt, an UNHCR Special Envoy and UNICEF supporter, and who has a daughter from Ethiopia, became involved, too.

She seemed completely taken by the film and its artistry and wanted to take it on,” Mehretu confirmed. “She generously put her name on it as a presenter and executive producer, and her team […] worked diligently to support the film’s inclusion in festivals and the like.”

The film was brought to the attention of Michelle Obama, and the message is gaining more and more traction. “The State Department began to address the issue in 2013, but the release of an Adolescent Girls Strategy has been stalled,” Mehretu said. “The petition connected to Difret has accelerated the release of this strategy thanks to the over 144,000 signatories we gathered.”

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