I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Desert Flower‘s costume designer Gabriele Binder about her work on the film. Shooting in Djibouti, London, and Germany on a small budget has its challenges, and it is fascinating to hear her stories! Check it out –
How did you become involved with the project?
I had a long work history with director Sherry Hormann. When she started to write the adaptation of the book, I got involved. That was around two and a half years before we finally started shooting.
How did you approach your prep for this film – did you have photographs to study? Where did your research come from?
The most challenging thing was the research of Somalia in the 80s & 90s. There is very little photographic material of daily life in Mogadishu from that period and even less about the tribal nomads.
I tried to find an understanding from inside the tribal culture in east Africa through nomad literature. It was very helpful to see that there are totally different parameters and values to their existence, as all life is designed around the well being of the camels and goats. It feels natural for the patriarch to exchange his daughter for some more camels in his herd!!!
Three months before shooting, I spent a couple of days in Djibouti to see how colors could work in the desert light. I also checked out the location to research the local fabrics, and that was also when I found out that today’s tribal women are extremely shy about exposing their body. For example, the women of today would not agree to show themselves without headscarf or with nude shoulders. The opposite was, in fact, common with the tribal women in the 1980s, who were freer about exposing parts of the body. Today’s rules are much more strict and therefore we had to follow, and be respectful of, this aspect of their culture.
What were your discussions like with the director about the costumes – what was most important to her?
The most important thing to Sherry was to keep Waris’ dignity when she is in this alien-like situation during her first time in England, and of course to tell this story of her growth from a primitive simple illiterate culture into our complex society. It was important to target her struggle, her loneliness and her success in finally making her path in her very personal way. We also tried to stretch the story into our time, making it seem timeless, so I tried to keep the period feel quite open. When she arrives in London, we had kind of early 90s look, but when she meets Marylin, we used this 80s retro look from the last years of the decade. We felt it was very important to tell the audience that this still happens today, and not only in tribal families. All of our female team members (educated women) in Djibouti were mutilated, and they will all do the same with their daughters!!!!
Most important to us was to have the mutilation scene done in a way that was shocking, but also digestible. We wanted to move the audience. We thought about it as a very political issue. We wanted everybody to see it and to start talking.
Did you have any discussions with Waris about the costumes? Was she involved with the costume department?
We had letters and comments from Waris, but she didn’t interact with us directly.
Tell me about the logistics of shooting a movie in several international locations – what was the biggest challenge about the locations?
The most challenging part was the work in Djibouti, as there is not any movie or filmmaking culture. Not only do they not make movies there, they are also not accustomed to watching them as there are no cinemas and very few televisions. So our local crew was full of curiosity, but it was their very first time working on anything like this. We worked with local tailors, and they did great job, but they were not at all used to quick turnaround. They also do each piece very individually and it was not easy to produce doubles from even most simple pattern! I also traded lots of clothes that I saw people wearing in the street – in exchange for their African clothes, I gave them western clothes, and that seemed like a good deal to the locals. There was no rental of course, so we brought a big stock over from Europe. The male characters had real difficulties understanding why we wanted them to wear distressed clothes. They felt that this was a blow against their dignity and they often left angry, throwing costumes to the ground and lamenting the situation.
How big was your team? Did you hire local costumers in each location? How did that go?
I worked with my assistant and one standby costumer on all locations, plus we hired local crewmembers. We did not have a supervisor or a textile artist, because of budget problems. That means that, especially in Africa, we worked day and night to get everything dyed and distressed. My Djibouti assistant had never seen a washing machine before in her life, and I will never forget her expression of happiness and disbelief when I showed her how it works. Of course this machine is in her home now.
Tell me about your decisions regarding color in the film – did you have talks with the production designer, director of photography, etc., to come up with a palette?
Yes, I was lucky to work with two wonderful and talented colleagues – Jamie Leonard (production design) and Ken Kelch (director of photography) very closely. The pinkish nomad dress worn by young Waris was derived from the desert flower, and that gave the outline to the whole color palette. When she arrives in London, she is dressed in a “piece of Africa” and looks totally alien in her new surroundings.
We used the bright loud blue (down jacket) later as a step towards assimilation (it is actually a Marylin color). Then colors disappear and she adapts somehow to the surrounding. When she finally gets back to her roots, there is the pink again (the scarf she wears in the interview with the Marie Claire journalist), but even then, it is worn with distinguished black.
In the end she is one of us, but very much herself, all thanks to the outstanding beauty and grace of wonderful actress Liya Kebede.
The arc of Waris’ character is very distinct. Can you walk us through your decisions for telling her story through her costumes?
We thought it was important that she always stays an outsider and exists in a certain loneliness. She doesn’t get too crazy about fashion, even when she is successful model. She adapts without being too close to somebody or some fashion idea, and that idea felt like something nomadic! It’s something that I studied in photos of Waris – she always has something about her mode of dress that is very much her, and only her, and I tried to catch that.
The film takes place (theoretically, anyway) from about 1968 – 1997. How did you approach the different time periods – I noticed it was pretty loose. Can you tell me more about your ideas for representing the 1980s – 1990s part of the story in terms of the costumes?
Yes, the time period thing was tricky, as Sherry wanted to make it a “today” story. There was also a limited budget and lots of exteriors shot on present-day Oxford Street that didn’t allow it to be truly period. I tried to create something like – let’s call it an “individual timeline” that would bridge us from late 80s Somalia until today. Our goal was to have a blurry “time focus” and to work with classics or costumes that are kind of timeless and don’t have too much subtext. It was helpful that when we shot in England, 80s retro fashion was just peaking.
The Somali costumes and fabrics are gorgeous. Where did you source those pieces? Did you have someone dye fabrics? Sew anything?
The women’s costumes were all made in Djibouti, and I sourced most fabrics from local fabric stores and markets. I imported solids and less-patterned cottons from Europe, as Djiboutians have a tendency to wear a very wild mix of pattern, too wild for the picture, we thought. Waris’ nomad dress colors were dyed on European fabrics, and many of the local fabrics were bleached, because they were just too vibrant for the camera.
What was your biggest challenge, making this film?
The biggest challenge and the greatest experience was Africa, and I wonder if my African team learned as much from me as I had the chance to learn from them. It was an unforgettable and rich experience.
A real challenging moment I had was when the suitcase transporting costumes for Waris’ family in Mogadishu fell off of the roof of a jeep in the night in the desert…and I had to recreate all those costumes in 24 hours.
Any good stories from the set?
All of our African crew started to laugh like crazy all the time when the director said, “Cut!” It was because they have a drug over there called khat – it’s a green vegetable that is chewed and it makes every man stoned there every day. All the crew was crying behind the camera, when we shot the scene where Waris is telling Marylin about her mutilation. It’s still touchy just to think about.
Anything else you’d like to add about Desert Flower?
I am especially thankful for the open mindedness of the cast. Everybody was ready to invent his character in the fitting. It was a perfect collaboration.
How did you get started in this business?
After design studies, I started in the fashion industry. Later on I was lucky to learn and work in theater with great masters like Bob Wilson. Then my friend and colleague Esther Walz gave me the chance to assist her on the Wim Wenders movie Far Away So Close. I think I was really lucky.
What advice do you have for someone starting in the costume side of the business?
Try to get some kind of internship in the opera. There you can learn practically everything about costume technique, application and costume history.
What’s it like to work in Europe – how do you get your jobs, and how many productions do you get to do in a year? All films, or theater and opera as well?
Compared with American budgets, we work here mostly on very small or independent budgets. That means we try to handle everything with quite small crews, and individual specialization is not well developed. The good point about this is that everybody takes a lot of responsibility, but it also means that the costumers on set have to know how to age costumes and how to make quick alterations as there is no textile artist in the budget and most often no tailor on set. That also limits what’s possible or not. Usually I get jobs from same directors with whom I have worked before, or by recommendation. I did theater, opera and dance in earlier years, but it’s quite another gang of people and unfortunately they don’t really mingle with movie people!
Thank you so much for your time. I loved the movie and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say! I am also a HUGE, HUGE fan of The Lives of Others. That movie knocked me out – definitely top five of the last decade for me. I loved it. Thank you so much for talking with me & keep up the good work!!
Oh, thank you so much, The Lives of Others was such a good script and such a wonderful director and great cast…it was so good to be part of that movie, so I am very happy that you liked it.
Thank you so much again for giving me the chance to talk about Desert Flower. I feel very honored to have an interview here.
And we are honored you took the time to tell us about your work. Thank you, Gabriele!!