Release Date: 3-18-11 (USA); 9-24-2009 (Germany)
Runtime: 127 min.
Period: 1968 – 1997
Costume Designer: Gabriele Binder
I read Waris Dirie’s autobiographical book Desert Flower (the basis for this film) back in 1998 when it came out. I was captivated by her bravery and stunned by her life story: young girl from a nomadic tribe escapes arranged marriage in Somalia, comes to London, becomes a supermodel and a UN ambassador. But that’s just the surface.
Waris Dirie’s story is a reminder that there is more to all of us than our surface components – our wounds, our pain, our joy and our determination reside in a hidden place. What we decide to do about all of that surface/hidden stuff is our choice. Waris Dirie has gracefully overcome some seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her life, and her beauty is more than skin deep.
Raised in a destitute nomadic tribe in Somalia, we meet young Waris (Soraya Omar-Scego) as a twelve/thirteen-year-old girl. She herds goats. She does not know how to read or write. Her father takes her to meet a sixty-year-old man who wants to purchase her as his fourth wife. Yes, purchase. That night, Waris escapes, running for her life through the desert.
She arrives in Mogadishu and reunites with her maternal grandmother. Her flight has caused great shame and hardship for her family – her father relentlessly beats Waris’ mother for letting her escape. Fearing further trouble, Grandma arranges for Waris to go to London to serve as a housemaid for her aunt, the wife of a Somali diplomat in the UK.
With a very clever on-camera transition, young Waris grows into older Waris (Liya Kebede). Now eighteen/nineteen years old, and with Somalia collapsing into civil unrest, Waris leaves the embassy and starts out on her own. She is homeless, and a stranger (free for the first time) in a strange land: giddy London.
She meets Marylin (Sally Hawkins) in TopShop. It’s the early 1980s, and Marylin becomes a reluctant roommate, friend and guardian to Waris. They live in a shifty, rundown apartment, but they have each other. Waris gets a job mopping floors at McDonalds, and in time catches the eye of photographer Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall).
One day while having lunch with Marylin, Waris is doubled over in abdominal pain. Marylin takes her to the hospital, and we soon discover that she (Waris) has been the victim of female genital mutilation, a practice common in African tribes. This is a custom in which the external genitalia of young girls are removed (all of it), and the wounded area is stitched back together to heal shut. More on this in a minute. Waris’ doctor is dumbfounded, and he calls a Somali-speaking male nurse to inform Waris about her options. The nurse chastises Waris in Somali for letting the doctor view her body; he doesn’t translate a word the doctor says.
Donaldson shoots pictures of her that attract an agent, Lucinda (Juliet Stevenson), and soon Waris is booked for work on catwalks and cameras across the world. One problem: her lack of work papers. Since Somalia fell into governmental disarray, her passport was never renewed. Waris can’t stay in the UK without a proper work visa. The handyman at the shifty apartment building Neil (Craig Parkinson), agrees to marry her so that she can stay and work.
Of course, that works out poorly. And Waris has, in the meantime, made the fleeting acquaintance of charming New Yorker Harold Jackson (Anthony Mackie), but is too petrified (or perhaps too inexperienced) to pursue anything.
Waris eventually has surgery to correct the genital mutilation, as much as it can be corrected, and becomes a supermodel, gracing runways worldwide. A reporter from Marie Claire magazine sets up an interview with Waris, and the subject is: the day that changed my life. Waris agrees to tell the journalist a story only if the journalist promises to publish it. Without knowing what Waris’ story will be, the journalist agrees. Waris tells her about the day her mother took her to a gypsy woman to be mutilated. She tells the journalist about her sister who bled to death when she underwent the procedure. The journalist is stunned, and in tears by the time Waris finishes.
The story is published, and Waris is again in demand, but this time as a speaker about the horrors of genital mutilation. The film ends with her addressing the United Nations. Thankfully, we get a few blurbs in the “where are they now” vein at the end – Waris is now living in Austria, and she is a major international force in the fight to stop female genital mutilation.
The costumes in this film are really interesting. I suspect that with the international shoot (Djibouti, London, Cologne, Berlin & Munich, Germany, and New York) and a small-ish budget, it was a challenge! But the arc of the character: illiterate child, to servant, to aspiring model, to UN Ambassador? That is wonderful for costumes.
When we first meet young Waris, she is dressed in the colors of a desert flower – saturated orange, pink and yellow hues. The fabrics are beautifully treated – they look hand-washed and dried in the sun. All of the fabrics used in this Somalia environment are gorgeous and rich with color and pattern.
When Waris is finally free in London, look at her color – blazing pink, in a sea of drab, dark colors. She is still a desert flower, transplanted to the big city.
As she begins to transition, she loses her head scarf/hijab, exposing her hair. Marylin lets her borrow a thick blue down jacket. She still stands out, in terms of the bright blue color, but is becoming assimilated in silhouette.
When she meets Harold Jackson, she shifts into a darker blue, looking uncomfortable with her skin exposed – an important note, as this is the first time we see her dressed in truly Western fashion.
In a scene where she tracks Harold down in New York, look at the change in her appearance – long, straight hair, white (COLORLESS) sleeveless (SLEEVELESS!) dress, straight, sophisticated lines. It’s quite remarkable. She’s come a long way!
And here, at the end of the film, speaking before the United Nations, note the austerity of this dress. It appeared navy blue on my screen, and it’s tasteful, simple and an appropriate choice for an occasion of that nature. It’s a long way from the sand-blown pinks and yellows of her youth.
Sally Hawkins’ Marylin is dressed in 1980s pastiche. The time period is a bit amorphous in the film, which helps move the story along, so there is never a precise “date” of the look in characters like Marylin. She’s a struggling, hopeless performer, and the costumes feel inexpensive and appropriate to her meager financial means.
The distinct worlds of this film: the desert, Mogadishu, London, and New York, are well represented in their costumes and color palettes. Color plays such a huge role in this film, focusing the audience’s attention exactly where it needs to go.
I am looking forward to talking with costume designer Gabriele Binder, and will have an interview for you in a few days. She also designed The Lives of Others, which is in my top five best films of the last decade. Very excited to speak with her about this extraordinary film, Desert Flower.
The film was released here in the US in March of this year (2011). It was released in September 2009 in Germany. What took so long?
As you can probably imagine, female genital mutilation is virtually an unknown topic in the United States. Most people here would rather shut out news that “doesn’t concern them” and snuggle into their couch to watch Wheel of Fortune while eating a bag of chips. Well, if I may: female genital mutilation affects all of us because as long as one person is oppressed, we are all oppressed.
Some may think it doesn’t happen here. WRONG. I spoke with a gynecologist today who has seen it herself here in Los Angeles. According to the World Health Organization, 6,000 girls face mutilation every day. Every. Day. It happens, and not just in Somalia, either.
Female genital mutilation has nothing to do with religion. It is never mentioned in the Qur’an or in the Bible. It is a custom, a ritual passed down through tribes. It is performed to make a daughter “marriageable” in the eyes of the tribe. However, it renders her deformed, scarred, mutilated, and in pain for the rest of her life. The gynecologist I spoke with today said that when these women give birth (which, in their native countries is BY THEMSELVES, IN A HUT), the birthing process rips the entire area apart. After the baby is born, they are sewn back up and the “wound” heals again.
This is torture, plain and simple. If you think this doesn’t affect your life, you are profoundly mistaken.
This LA gynecologist had some very harsh (unprintable) words for people who would proliferate this barbaric practice, and I urge you to get educated about it. The more people are able to come to terms with the fact that this is actually happening, and that it is socially and ethically unacceptable, the easier it will be to criminalize it and abolish the practice.
I didn’t mean to get political here, but this is a big issue for all of us – men, women, and the children who will grow up to inherit this world. If you’d like more information about Waris Dirie, her books and her work, here are some excellent links:
I hope you can see this film – it will be available on DVD at the end of June/beginning of July. Remember, she was illiterate at age thirteen, and look what she made of her life! Best-selling author, activist, and UN Ambassador! Hats off to you, Waris Dirie!!
Stay tuned for an interview with costume designer Gabriele Binder, as well as an interview (from National Geographic) with director Sherry Hormann.
Many thanks to National Geographic Entertainment and to James Lewis PR for the photos and interviews.