Desert Flower (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Waris Dirie (Liya Kebede) settled in London after she escaped from Somalia when she was a teenager and arranged to marry a much older man. While working in a fast food restaurant, she was spotted by an acclaimed fashion photographer named Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall). With the help of her modeling agent (Juliet Stevenson), booking the right jobs and getting Dirie’s VISA taken care of, and a friend named Marylin (Sally Hawkins), for moral support, Dirie worked hard to become an international supermodel. But being in high fashion and getting paid ridiculous amount of money didn’t grant her happiness. A smart and driven woman, she used her celebrity to shed light on the cruel practice of female circumcision. Based on Waris Dirie’s novel and directed by Sherry Horman, “Desert Flower” verged on melodrama at times but it remained a fascinating story of a survivor who trekked across a desert to achieve a better life. Perhaps it was meant to be melodramatic as to highlight the struggle that brought about the change in her. It was impossible not to root for the main character when she obtained food from trash because she didn’t have any money. On top of her poverty, she knew nobody in London and it didn’t help that she didn’t know much English. I absolutely could relate to the latter part–incapable of communicating and understanding clearly during the first few months I immigrated to America. The film was most powerful when the issue of female genital cutting was front and center. The quiet moment when Waris revealed to Marylin what happened to her when she was three years old was devastating. It made me consider how I would have reacted if I was in Marylin’s shoes. What can one really say to someone who’s gone through something so horrific? However, though the trauma of the surgery affected the way she interacted with others, I was glad that Dirie wasn’t simply portrayed in the film as a victim. It was ultimately an uplifting story because if it wasn’t for Dirie, perhaps the concept of genital mutilation would still be foreign to most of us. Kebede was a joy to watch because she commanded a subtle quiet power. The downplaying of the acting complemented the film’s more overt emotions. In the first half, her character’s demure persona reflected the way her body was consistently covered. She spoke softly and always looked down. In the second half, when she became a model, although she was still somewhat reserved, her confidence was almost overwhelming when she was in front of the camera. It was critical that Dirie’s transformation felt convincing. And it was. There were some criticisms, however, involving Marylin because she was mostly portrayed as a comic, claiming that the funny moments felt out of place. I’d have to disagree. Independent from the novel, I thought Marylin was a rather important figure in Waris’ journey in becoming a leader. The light-hearted sequences meant to communicate that just because people had gone through the cruel practice, it didn’t mean that they were incapable of experiencing joy and happiness. It will always be a part of them but it doesn’t necessarily define them.