Desert Flower, a 2009 movie making its Houston debut today, is based on the 1999 best-seller of the same name, written by Waris Dirie with Cathleen Miller. Dirie is a Somali-born woman who fled her home country to escape an arranged marriage; she eventually became an international top model of the late '80s and early '90s.
The movie stars Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede, herself a well-known model and actress, along with a British supporting cast of familiar names. Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, the current Jane Eyre), Timothy Spall (the Harry Potter films, The King's Speech), Anthony Mackie (The Adjustment Bureau, The Hurt Locker), and Juliet Stevenson (Bend It Like Beckham, Infamous) round out the impressive cast.
So where has Desert Flower been?
Just based on the synopsis, that cast, and the trailer, you might think it's a fairly-commercial rags-to-riches story where a poor African girl makes good in the decadent, capitalist West. Dirie, however, had more to deal with than learning the ways of a new culture. She was also the victim, at 5 years old, of the practice of female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation), a common ritual in parts of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. It is also practiced in the United States by immigrants from these regions.
National Geographic Entertainment is giving Desert Flower a limited release in theaters after it played the festival circuit, primarily in Europe. (In Houston, it's playing at the Edwards Grand Palace.) Sherry Hormann, a U.S.-born filmmaker who lives and works in Germany, adapted Dirie's book for the screen and also directed. Hormann deftly handles a sensitive subject which wasn't widely discussed until recently. Although the movie is rated "R" there is no graphic depiction of the ritual; it is discussed in detail, however, so that the viewer does know just what happened to Dirie.
So what is this practice, who does it, and why does it occur? This ancient rite of passage requires that the female genitals be partly or entirely removed or injured with the goal of inhibiting a girl's sexual feelings; it is thought this will help keep the girl "pure" before marriage. It's typically performed before puberty, often on girls between four and eight, but sometimes even younger. In certain societies there are designated women who perform this practice; sometimes they are also midwives, sometimes healers, nurses or doctors. Often the ritual is performed without anesthetic, under unhygienic circumstances.
In the movie, Dirie, who survived this operation (many girls don't), is sold by her father in marriage at 13 to a man old enough to be her grandfather. She refuses this match and runs away, across the desert, to Mogadishu and her estranged grandmother. Eventually she is sent to London to be a maid in the residence of the Somali ambassador. When war breaks out in Somalia, the London embassy is shut down and Dirie, knowing she cannot return to her country, becomes a street person. After years of servitude as a maid, she still knows very little of London life, language, and mores.
Yet, she learns. She's befriended by Marilyn (Hawkins), a Cockney shopgirl and aspiring dancer; they become roommates and light comedic moments occur as they get to know each other. Tall, strikingly beautiful, and (once she overcomes her language difficulties) naturally friendly, Dirie begins to be noticed by a rooming-house neighbor (Craig Parkinson), an American tourist (Mackie), and a fashion photographer (Spall), who takes her to a model-agency head (Stevenson).
It's not a smooth ride to the top of the modeling world, however. One of the most poignant moments occurs when Dirie, not yet comfortable with English, goes to the hospital for an infection arising from her long-ago operation. A British doctor asks a Somali male nurse to translate his instructions to her, but by subtitles we see that the nurse berates her instead "for bringing shame on our people."
Desert Flower is an entertaining film which manages to be more than just a tale of empowerment. It's the story of one woman's triumph over adversity, yes; but it's also a learning experience. One incredible fact: Although the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation has been condemned by the World Health Organzation and the United Nations, it's still commonly performed on as many as 6,000 girls per day.
The real Waris Dirie has become a United Nations spokesperson for women's rights. On International Women's Day 2011 (March 8), Dirie stated, "In Egypt and Tunisia, the people have succeeded in overthrowing their dictators and are working on establishing democratic systems. Let's make sure that while we watch, support, and appreciate the steps taken in these countries, and hopefully in Libya soon, we do not forget to keep an eye on the situation of women in these societies. Let us not pass by this opportunity to make lasting changes and improve women's rights in North Africa and all around the world."