11. The Healer as Storyteller

Physician and filmmaker Mehret Mandefro uses  storytelling as medicine.

Physician and filmmaker Mehret Mandefro uses storytelling as medicine.

Early in her career, Mehret Mandefro, M.D., discovered that there was far more to protecting women’s health than providing medical care. A native of Ethiopia who came to the United States to study medicine, she decided to expand the world’s view of what she calls the “legal determinants of health” by adding the title filmmaker to her extensive list of accomplishments.

After studying health policy as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar and White House Fellow, Mandefro founded Truth Aid, a company that produces multimedia content about barriers to social well-being to inform research and policy.

In 2014, her company produced the film Difret along with executive producer Angelina Jolie. The dramatic film (written and directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari) is based on the true story of Hirut, a 14-year-old girl who kills the man who kidnapped her in order to force her into marriage in Ethiopia.

The practice — telefa or bride kidnapping (in which a forced marriage would become legal once a raped girl was impregnated) — affected more than 40 percent of Ethiopia’s young girls in the mid-1990s. Ethiopian women’s rights activist Meaza Ashenafi argued Hirut’s case and won her freedom. The case helped to outlaw telefa in Ethiopia.

Difret is scheduled for release in U.S. theaters in 2015. It won the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award and the Berlin International Film Festival’s Panorama Audience Award in 2014.

Mandefro’s first film All of Us was about African Americans battling HIV/AIDS. It was shown on the Showtime network in 2008 and won nine film festival awards nationwide. Her latest work, Little White Lies, about the importance of embracing your true identity, will air on PBS in 2015.

Using storytelling as medicine has a powerful impact, Mandefro says, “because it’s an opportunity to mainstream concerns about the social determinants of health. That’s why I love making films.” — Sheree Crute