Desert Flower is a deeply emotional drama (with light comedic moments) that tells the true story of Waris Dirie, a Somali woman who had undergone female genital mutilation at 3 years old, escaped her rural home village before an arranged marriage at 13, became an indentured servant to the Somali ambassador in London, and then, by chance, was discovered and became a supermodel. But despite her fairy tale rags to riches story, Dirie was still haunted by her past, and all the celebrity brought on by her looks couldn’t deny that what happened to her as a child was an unnecessary act of violence, so she used her position and fame to raise awareness about the issue and became a UN spokeswoman against female genital mutilation (FGM).
Director Sherry Hormann (Father’s Day) tells Dirie’s remarkable story, and supermodel Liya Kebede stars as Dirie, in a performance that was deeply honest in portraying a complex woman. Dirie is introduced as being homeless on the streets of London, speaking limited English and dressed in fine scarves and wraps. Through a chance encounter, she befriends aspiring dancer Marylin (Sally Hawkins), who initially treats Waris like a lost puppy, but comes to find her as a caring and sensitive friend.
The scene where Waris slowly begins to understand that FGM is not the usual practice for all women, via speaking to Marylin about sex, is an incredibly sad and painful scene. Kebede plays this scene as if Waris has just been punched in the stomach, horrified that she is denied the pleasure which Marylin can take for granted. And Hawkins, up until this point, has played Marylin as a bit self-absorbed and flighty, more of a girly-girl friend who is unaware of her new friend’s cultural background and history. In this scene, she is just as shocked as Waris at this injustice that has been forced upon her due to traditional ideas about women and their sexuality being controlled by others. From this moment, Waris and Marylin’s friendship grows deeper, and with a richer meaning than just being friendly girlfriends.
The second half of the film focuses on Dirie’s modeling career, after she is discovered by photographer Terence Donovan (Timothy Spall), while working mopping floors and cleaning up trash at a London McDonald’s. She is completely clueless to the superficial world of fashion and marketed beauty, but Donovan’s trust in her gives her more confidence and freedom in the world. The fashion world scenes are more comedic, poking fun at the superficiality of the fashion industry, as exemplified by Waris’ agent Lucinda (Juliet Stevenson.) But, even with more mobility and success in the world, it doesn’t erase the pain that Waris feels at being an anomaly in more ways than one.
Waris’ courage in speaking openly about a deeply painful subject is commendable and truly brave, and her advocacy to end FGM for all women is a step forward in taking back control due to sexist ideas about women and their sexuality. Desert Flower portrays Waris Dirie as a strong woman who, through challenges and adversities, became a hero for many women around the world. Kebede plays her as a touching, compassionate human being, and her story leaves an indelible mark on the viewer afterwards.
Desert Flower opens in NY and LA on March 18.
(Desert Flower screened last month at the Athena Film Festival which was produced by Women and Hollywood)