On and off for eight years, director Zeresenay Mehari worked to make Difret, his narrative feature debut, a reality. A graduate of University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, Mehari’s script depicted a bright, 14-year-old girl who is abducted into marriage, an ancient tradition that is not uncommon in Mehari’s native land of Ethiopia. In the story, the girl fights against this injustice, shooting her would-be husband in the struggle. A tenacious lawyer from the city defends the girl, who is caught between the civil laws and old traditions. After a couple of false starts, he found financing for the film. Angelina Jolie is among the executive producers.
Mehari connected with cinematographer Monika Lenczewska, a graduate of the American Film Institute whose credits include multiple lauded short films, numerous commercials, and the feature films B for Boy and Imperial Dreams. Lenczewska was impressed with the script, and when Mehari mentioned he wanted to shoot on 2-perf 35mm film, she officially signed on.
After scouting almost 50 locations in Ethiopia, Lenczewska returned to Los Angeles for three weeks of tests at Panavision, where she determined the right combination of lenses and film stocks. Her vision for the tone was to keep it naturalistic. “The story is quite dramatic already,” she says. “It was important to me that the look complements and underlines the characters without overpowering the story.”
About two-thirds of the shoot took place in urban locations in and around Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, with the remainder filmed in more rural locales. The filmmakers considered creating a different look for each world, but decided that the locations were naturally distinct in character and that sharpening that distinction photographically would have been overkill.
“Because it’s a period piece, taking place in 1996, I initially tested several sets of older lenses,” she says. “I like the look and softness of older lenses. But I ultimately found that the PANAVISION Primos were the best fit for the 2-perf film format along with my lighting approach, and therefore a perfect match for what Difret required.”
Lenczewska shot most exteriors on KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207, and interiors on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. A few exterior scenes shot in the mid-day African sun were done on KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203.
“I was amazed by how well the 50D holds the highlights,” she notes. “The latitude was very helpful. One of our main actresses has a very dark complexion, and there’s a scene where she’s running through the forest. We shot it in the middle of the day, and it was very contrasty. I was expecting a somewhat rougher image, but it looks amazing. It was a nice surprise, and that is the scene that everyone asks about. To me, film is the best format to shoot on, especially for day exteriors. The texture and feel of it – I don’t think there’s anything better.”
Scenes were usually shot with two PANAVISION Golden PANAFLEX GII cameras. The production also carried a third camera, an ARRI 35mm camera set up for 3-perf, for a few wider landscape and establishing shots. Exterior scenes were usually lit with bounce, reflectors, mirrors and diffusion. Lenczewska says she often benefitted from cloudy weather, which made for more even, softer light. An overcast sky was a very large soft source, so the shadows were diffused and the fall-off was very gradual.
Interior situations were often complicated by the lack of dependable power. For day interiors, sunlight could sometimes be bounced through a window, but night interiors occasionally brought flicker problems. Lenczewska did her best to create a balance, knowing that she could fine-tune those night interiors during the digital intermediate.
“I’m old school in that I do everything I can in front of the camera,” she says. “For the most part, the dailies were in a very good place, thanks to our strategy and thorough preparation.”
During one weeklong stretch, the days would begin with an hour-and-a-half drive followed by 45 minutes on horseback. “We needed to make this journey to really capture the beauty of the countryside,” says Lenczewska. “It was important for the movie. We couldn't have done it without dependable film cameras and a dedicated crew, including D.J. Carroll, Frezgy Sultan and Greta Zozula. And nothing really compares with the sturdiness of film.”
Difret won the Panorama Audience Award at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, and was nominated for a grand jury prize at Sundance, where it took an Audience Award in the World Cinema – Dramatic category.
“Movies like Difret are important because the stories need to be heard,” says Lenczewska. “Social issues can be addressed through the journeys of individuals. When I read a script and connect to it, the energy of the material is why I’m there. Cinematography is a heavy job. You need to love it. You need to strongly believe in the story and fully commit to the vision of the director – and then you can go anywhere.”