By Justin (Germany)
The drama Desert Flower, directed by Sherry Hermann in 2009, tells the autobiographical story of Waris Dirie (Liya Kabede), a known British-Somali model, and her way to success. Due to the protagonist’s past, the movie also deals with female genital mutilation and depicts this topic in a highly appropriate way.
At the age of three, Waris’ genital area was circumcised following the Somali tradition of preserving a woman’s “purity”. Eleven years later, after having been forced into marrying a way older man, she flew to her grandmother that, later on, helped her move to London to work as a maid in a wealthy household. Living there in the worst conditions for a long time span, she then meets Marilyn (Sally Hawkins) who gives her shelter and a workplace and eventually becomes her best friend. Coincidentally, Waris is discovered by a star photograph who then builds the foundation for her career as an American supermodel. After becoming known ultimately, she uses her international outreach to bring more attention to female genital mutilation globally.
Traditions help shaping cultures and the individuals influenced by them. It’s safe to say that these rituals can have a positive effect on a person. Desert Flower shows the horrifying contrary of traditions that traumatize and make victims out of regular people, more specifically the Somali tradition of genital mutilation amongst young girls. The movie emphasizes this truth in shocking and provocative scenes, like the graphic scene of Waris’ circumcision. Even though hard to watch, it’s important to show how terrifying this tradition is in a raw and shocking way. In our opinion, the incredible acting of young Waris’ actress Safa Idriss Nour in the mutilation scene has to be mentioned: Her gut-wrenching screams and cries made us feel nauseous and burned themselves into our minds. The statistics about FGM shown right before the credits at the end also underline the horrible truth about this practice, for example the fact that 130 million women worldwide are affected by the circumcision.
Aside from this topic, the movie also tells the story of Waris’ escape from Somalia and how she became a supermodel and human rights-activist. It’s especially interesting to observe her development from a shy and frightened to a confident and strong woman. This radiates a much needed undertone of female empowerment in the movie. Towards the end, there’s an artistic scene of Waris’ nude photoshoot that shows her psychological growth and sexual awakening: In her imagination, she becomes intimate with Harold Jackson (Anthony Mackie), a man that she met in a club and couldn’t forget from that moment on. This particular scene portrays body positivity in a beautiful, yet provocative way, which we admire.
The cast did a very good job at portraying their characters in the best way possible, even though it’s due to the script that these characters seem significantly two-dimensional. Marilyn is mostly shown being clumsy and is used for comedic relief, so this role sadly underestimates the Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins. Moreover, Neil (Craig Parkinson), the man Waris marries to be able to stay in England, is portrayed as a love-sick and desperate man without any depth. Only Waris has more than one layer, regarding her being the protagonist.
The beginning of the movie shows shots of the desert that Waris grew up in, but it doesn’t set the atmospheric tone for the rest of the movie. The way too dramatic and epic music in the background makes it hard to understand the feeling of the following story. It misguides the viewer into believing that the dramatic aspect in this movie is going to be overly prominent. The camera work, on the contrary to the soundtrack, is subtle: There’s a bit to no color-grading at all, the shots are simple and forgettable and the editing consists of plain cuts from scene to scene. Furthermore, there is no heavy use of special effects that is noticeable.
In conclusion, we give Desert Flower four out of five stars. Even though there are no outstanding practical aspects (like the camera work or the script), the movie still tells an authentic, emotional and thought-provoking story. We definitely recommend watching it, but only if you are able to watch graphic scenes. Also, every viewer should keep in mind that the plot is a true story while watching it. It lets you share the emotions and thoughts with Waris and makes you think about what many women had and still have to go through.