Liya Kebede plays Somali model
and FGM activist Waris Dirie in Desert Flower
Some stories are too terrible to tell. But sometimes the terror they relate makes the telling all the more urgent.
Waris Dirie's memoir Desert Flower is just such a story. It became a runaway bestseller after its publication in 1998. Now, director Sherry Horman has released a film version that will carry her astonishing - and terrifying - tale to an even wider international audience.
Young Djibouti actress Soraya Omar-Scego plays Waris, an illiterate thirteen year-old goat herd from the deserts of Somalia who is about to be sold to an ancient nomad as his fourth wife. She escapes across the wasteland to her grandmother in Mogadishu, who arranges for her to travel to London as a housemaid. There she is regularly beaten and practically kept as a slave. After the diplomats for whom she is working are recalled to Somalia upon the outbreak of civil war there, she stays behind illegally, working at odd jobs and dumpster diving just to stay alive.
One day Waris (who at this age is played by Ethiopian-born supermodel Liya Kebede) is discovered by photographer Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall) while she is mopping the floor at a London fast food restaurant and soon rises - Cinderella-like - to become one of the world's top-paid models. After achieving fame and fortune on runways and magazine covers, she devotes herself to highlighting female genital mutilation (FGM), a traditional African practise to which she had been submitted at the age of three.
Kebede, a young woman of almost supernatural beauty, not only plays the part with energy and charisma, but looks almost identical to Waris Dirie herself.
The film is beautifully made and the African scenes, all filmed on location in Djibouti, are astonishing, the local actors utterly convincing. And yet the film as a whole fails to gel. The director clearly wanted to lighten up the movie's somber subject matter by giving it a cute Bridget Jones / Devil Wears Prada touch. That can be the only reason why Waris is assigned a suitably ditzy girfriend sidekick played by Sally Hawkins (Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky), and the film contains enough jokes and sight gags to keep audiences smiling. You almost feel like you're watching a pilot episode for a Sex and the City-style sitcom.
That is why it is all the more terrifying when the movie cuts back to little Waris's sexual mutilation at the hands of a witch-like hag wielding a rusty razor. Forget Freddy Krueger, forget Private Ryan - Desert Flower's circumcision sequence is one of the most harrowing scenes ever filmed and will likely haunt you in your dreams for months to come.
Young Waris (Soraya Omar-Scego)
escapes across the Somali desert
FGM as practised in Somalia consists of slicing off a girl's inner and outer labia together with the clitoris, then sewing the gaping wound back up tight, leaving an opening no wider than a matchstick. This ensures a woman's "cleanliness," "honor," and "virginity" until her wedding night. That is when her husband will literally cut her vagina open with a knife and proceed to use her as he pleases.
Waris Dirie herself bled profusely and only barely survived the resulting infection. The mutilation has left her permanently unable to experience any pleasant sensations during sex, let alone to achieve orgasm. One of her sisters bled to death and another died while giving birth to her first child. A note shown on the screen at the end of the film informs the audience that despite recent bans on the practise in many African countries (partially due to Dirie's global anti-FGM campaign), some 6,000 girls are still circumcised every day.
Despite the misgivings I described above, Desert Flower may turn out to be one of the most important films dealing with women's issues to be released in 2009. I only hope that it will be seen by as many African immigrants in America and Europe as possible. If the story can make its way back to Africa, and particularly to Somalia, then all the better.
Desert Flower was first shown at the Venice Film Festival on September 5 and has since opened in Germany. It will be shown at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October. It has yet to find a distributor in the United States.
Click here to watch the trailer: