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Desert Flower: a Word from Director Sherry Hormann

Thought you might enjoy this piece written by director Sherry Hormann about her work on Desert Flower.  Here she talks about  how she came to the project and what it meant to her.  Read on!

Sherry Hormann

On Desert Flower

It all began with a small white plastic bag.

Peter Hermann, whom I’ve only said hello to a couple of times, passed it over the table to me. “Call me and tell me if you can find three reasons to make a film out of this.” It was a book. “Desert Flower?” I didn’t know the book. “Millions of others do,” was his simple answer.

The book instantly captivated me. This was an incredible life journey. Never had I seen so many opposites existing next to each other personified in a single human being such as in Waris Dirie’s story: Desert nomad child – top model in New York – illiterate cleaning woman at McDonald‘s – political speaker at the UN. Were the story not true, I would have thought I was reading a modern version of Cinderella. Most of all though, “Desert Flower” is a call against the injustice suffered by women through female genital mutilation without making blind accusations, a deep wound hidden behind the facade of beauty and glamour.

“So, who are you to film my story?”, Waris Dirie said to us at the start of our first meeting, and hours later as she was getting into the taxi she said, “When do we start? Now?”

Later I came to realize that everyone had their own reasons. During the casting for the role of Waris in London, a 40-year old woman from Mali entered the room. I looked at her in disbelief but then, in a friendly tone, the woman began to speak out what I could not bring myself to say, “I am not your Waris, I know, and I’m much too old and I can’t act either. I work in a factory in Glasgow but I took the day off today and took the train here to tell you how important this film is for Africa.” I was overwhelmed, almost ashamed that I hadn’t wanted to make a film about an important issue. She took my hand, kissed it and laughed saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

On my first research trip to Kenya, I met three fully veiled Somali women, who all went by the same name, Amina, and had fled the civil war. They taught me everything about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and spoke to me about their own childhood that seemed identical with what Waris’ had experienced. Then suddenly one of them said, “There is this American, his name is Obama, he wants to be your next president. He is our people.” Somewhere, we all belong together.

Later in Djibouti, I realized that DESERT FLOWER would become the first film to focus on Somali culture and its Islamic roots. We filmed nomads who had literally never seen a camera before. We got Ken Kelsch, whose cinematography in the Abel Ferrara films had left a strong impression on me very early on. And when we took the risk to get a real circumciser who was willing to allow herself to be filmed, that’s when I finally understood that this film will become a personal journey for me, not least because of my own prejudices and prejudgments.

Amateurs and top actors collided with each other. In some scenes, I was forced to exchange some of the Somalis, such as Waris’ father who had suddenly disappeared off the set. I found him praying. He simply didn’t care that 80 people and a setting sun were waiting for him. We used the marketplace in Djibouti as the setting for Mogadishu. Hundreds of police had blocked the area for the shoot but then all of a sudden they all disappeared. Gone, just like that. Chaos broke out, members of the crew were being attacked with stones and everyone had their reasons. The police officers had gone to lunch. They had heard that a restaurant had been rented and there was a buffet, so they left because they wanted to be the first there.

In London, I sent Liya Kebede out on to the streets. We shot with a hidden camera. She integrated herself in the lives of the homeless and instantly experienced the usual treatment. Only two Somalis who lived in London and who by chance had come by offered their help, asking her whether she needed money or a place to stay.

I had the impression that because Waris’ story seemed like such a fairy tale, the adaptation had to be even more honest and real.

Jamie Leonard, the British set designer built up the English settings in an empty German rubber plant. And when Sally Hawkins and the rest of this strong British cast began to give free reign to their acting talent amidst these movable walls, everyone forgot that we were in Cologne. We were right in the middle of London and we ourselves became travellers, journeying between Djibouti, England, Germany and the USA. It didn’t matter which passport we carried, all of us together told the same one story, the story of Waris who had courageously taken her life into her own hands.

I thank Peter for this white plastic bag.

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