Title: Desert Flower
Director: Sherry Horman
Starring: Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins and Craig Parkinson
Chronicling a person’s life story on screen is never an easy task, especially when the person is from a different culture than the intended audience. Sherry Hormann is one such screenwriter-director, as she had the difficult task of adapting African nomad-turned-supermodel Waris Dirie’s autobiography Desert Flower. Instead of going the easy route and focusing on the success Waris found later in life as a model, Hormann made the risky decision to focus on Waris’ fight to end the female genital mutilation (FGM) she wrongfully had to endure.
‘Desert Flower’ follows the life of Waris (portrayed by Ethiopian model and actress Liya Kebede) as she overcomes the struggles of poverty and FGM she faces in her native country of Somalia. Through flashbacks, Hormann chronicles Waris’ life after she escapes an arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather when she was 13-years-old. She is sent to London by her grandmother to work as a maidservant for a representative at the Somalian embassy. When the Somalian regime is later overthrow, Waris decides to live on the streets of London than to return to her family.
Throughout ‘Desert Flower,’ Hormann primarily details the start and rise of Waris’ modeling career in London. While working as a cleaning woman in a fast food restaurant, Waris is discovered by a fashion photographer, Donaldson (played by Timothy Spall), who thinks she would be a successful print and runway model. Waris is encouraged to pursue a modeling career by her roommate and friend Marilyn (portrayed by Sally Hawkins). After revealing her experience with FGM to Marilyn, and becoming more comfortable in front of the camera and on the runway, Waris takes her story to the media. She’s eventually named a UN special Ambassador for Women’s Rights in Africa.
Hormann and producer Peter Herrmann made the right decision to hire Kebede to portray Waris. While Kebede previously only had small roles in ‘The Good Shepard’ and ‘Lord of War,’ she was the perfect choice to play the nomad-turned-model/philanthropist. Since both women were born in Africa and fought to overcome their circumstances to not only become models but to speak on the behalf of women, Kebede naturally understood Waris’ determination. As Hermann has said, “A successful screen adaptation of a life story depends far more on the actor playing the protagonist than in any other kind of film. Our Waris was in…practically every scene, so our actress had to be someone who could carry the film.” During the casting process, Hormann and Herrmann were both instantly attracted to Kebede, not only for her physical resemble to Waris, but for her radiance and natural understanding to the story as well.
‘Desert Flower’ is also an excellent adaptation of Waris’ 1998 autobiography of the same name, which has sold over 11 million copies worldwide, because Hormann was perfectly able to translate the book’s powerful message to the screen. Waris proved that no matter how dire a person’s circumstances are, if they are dedicated to improving themselves, they will succeed. Herrmann has also said that “‘Desert Flower’ is a deeply moving and dramatic life story that raises concern and aims to create change.” The audience will undoutingly be rooting for Waris to not only thrive in her modeling career to make a better life for herself, but to also bring an end to FGM with the help of the UN.
Hormann has also said that she “realized that ‘Desert Flower’ would become the first film to focus on Somali culture and its Islamic roots.” While some screenwriters and directors would fall under that enormous pressure, Hormann not only succeeded in showing the nation’s values, she exceeded expectations. Hormann not only showcased Waris’ strong character and willpower in her fight to end FGM in Somali, she also skillfully allowed viewers to sympathize with Waris’ determination to break free from her humble beginnings. The director made the right decision to truly focus the movie on Waris’ story, and not on her own political beliefs.
Screenwriters and directors who choose to tell someone’s real-life political story risk getting into legal trouble and isolating viewers who don’t believe in the movie’s message. However, Hormann skillfully succeeded in creating a powerful movie based on supermodel Waris Dirie’s life by allowing the audience to emotionally connect with her. Viewers will almost forget that Waris has such a glamorous life, as they are left wondering how countries still allow FGM to continue today.
Written by: Karen Benardello