Desert Flower (Wüstenblume) tells the fascinating story of Waris Dirie’s journey from nomad, to supermodel, to UN ambassador.
Sherry Horman's adaptation of Dirie's bestselling memoir had no shortage of interesting material to work with. Dirie now lives in Vienna, having become an Austrian citizen in 2005, but she has led a remarkable life. Born in Somalia in 1965, she fled on foot across the desert to escape an arranged marriage at the age of 13. Migrating to London, she did odd-jobs for years before being talent-spotted by fashion photographer Terence Donovan while working in McDonalds.
Dirie was an international celebrity by the late 80s and early 90s, but she gave up modelling at the height of her fame after spontaneously revealing to an American journalist that she had been circumcised as a child in Somalia. She soon became one of the most prominent spokespeople against female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM) and a UN special ambassador to campaign against the practice.
Despite the efforts of Dirie and others, which have seen FGM officially outlawed in several countries, the practice continues both in Africa and in the West, where it is maintained by people of African descent. It remains a complex and little-understood issue, and a controversial one; vehemently oppositional stances such as Dirie’s have come under fire for failing to account for the intricate ways in which FGM is woven into the cultural fabric of communities which practice it.
What is clear is that debate about FGM needs to continue, raising awareness and not allowing it to slip once again underneath the public radar. However, it is perhaps not surprising that Horman’s film does not focus only on the often disturbing details of the practice but instead foregrounds other, equally extraordinary elements of Dirie’s tale.
Desert Flower is, in fact, more of a rags-to-riches story than a political tract, placing emphasis on character over politics. This is not to the film's detriment, however, as its amiable and, for the most part, convincing collection of misfits make for a warm and often surprisingly funny film.
Dirie, played by Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede, is a shy, enigmatic character whose likeable naivety lends the film a quiet charm. Her innocence about British life and, in particular, the fashion world provides many of the film’s most amusing moments.
But it is Waris’s friendship with Marylin, played by Sally Hawkins, which is the film’s greatest strength. Chatty, bolshie and melodramatic, Marylin is convincingly flawed, oscillating between comedy and despair, providing a noisy counterpart to Waris's strong silence.
The humour and intimacy the pair's dynamic lends the film allows it to gently satirise the fashion world and the media, in particularly the way both attempt to market Waris as having 'escaped' or been somehow 'rescued' from her former life.
The pair are supported by a strong cast, including many faces that will be recognisable to British viewers, from Meera Syal to Timothy Spall. Indeed, the film is in many ways very British, immersing itself in the sights and sounds of everyday life in London.
Unfortunately, the parts of the film set in Somalia are a little more sentimental, presented as flashbacks and often accompanied by harrowing music designed to tug at the heart strings. At this point the film seems unsure about how to present Waris’s childhood; it appears that the filmmakers are much more comfortable with the familiar world of London and shy away from investigating Somalia with much depth.
However, the scene detailing the young Waris’s circumcision is explored with tact and subtlety. Although brief, it is the film’s most emotionally affecting scene, puncturing the generally optimistic mood with shocking severity, and it is in part this contrast that makes the moment linger in the mind long after the film has finished.
That this scene takes place near the end of the film, once the viewer empathises with Waris, means that the film stresses the similarity, rather than the difference, of people who are affected by FGM. It disallows the notion that the practice is something that happens elsewhere, to people who are different to those in the west.
Thus, paradoxically, it is Desert Flower's focus on other elements of Dirie's life that makes its message about FGM all the more powerful. Of course, the film takes an important step by tackling these issues in cinema at all, making sure that they remain in the public eye for the time being at least.
As a story of friendship and opportunity, and even fashion, Desert Flower is warm and full of heart. The film suggests, meanwhile, that conversation about FGM needs to continue, and does not necessarily need to be dour and miserable, despite the complexities of the issues at hand.
Desert Flower is currently playing in cinemas across Austria.
For more information on Waris Dirie’s work and on female circumcision, see www.waris-dirie-foundation.com/en/
AUTHOR: Samantha Cox
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