Synopsis: The autobiography of Waris Dirie (Liya Kebede), a Somalian nomad circumcised at 3, sold in marriage at 13, fled from Africa a while later to become finally an American supermodel and is now at the age of 38, the UN spokeswoman against circumcision.
Remarkable life gets skin deep treatment.
It is a disheartening but common cinematic occurrence: sometimes the most extraordinary of lives make for the most mundane of biopics. That’s the unfortunate conclusion to be drawn once more from Desert Flower, German filmmaker Sherry Horman’s adaptation of the best-selling 1998 autobiography of Somalian supermodel Waris Dirie.
Born to nomads, Waris was the subject of female genital mutilation at the age of 3, before fleeing her family at the age of 13 after her father sold her to an older man who planned to make the adolescent girl his fourth wife. She survived the trek to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and ended up in London as a servant to wealthy relatives, before enduring homelessness and illegal immigrant status until she was discovered by a leading fashion photographer.
Fiction would not permit such an incredible life story, but by the same measure the biopic does not allow for the subtlety or contemplation that invention might bestow. Beginning with the literal shot of a flower in the desert, the film clearly sets out to make Waris’ life a triumph against adversity, even if that means ignoring contradictions that should be addressed.
Much of the film is set in London, in a vaguely depicted mid to late 1980s, with Waris (played by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede in her screen debut) as an innocent naïf, drifting past the flagrantly outfitted extras – punks! prostitutes! – as she scours bins and eventually befriends a flighty retail assistant, Marylin (Sally Hawkins). The actress is the first of several accomplished English character actors, including Timothy Spall as a celebrated photographer and Juliet Stevenson as a fashion booker, who fill the space around Kebede’s under-directed, solemn performance with florid reworkings of their signature traits.
Flashbacks show us the 13-year-old Waris (Soraya Omar-Scego) who fled, and later the 3-year-old Waris (uncredited) who was taken to a female elder by her mother so that her external genitalia could be crudely and painfully cut away and her vagina essentially sown shut so as to preserve her for her future husband. “Only a cut woman is a good woman,” Waris tells Marylin, parroting what was drilled into her as a child. Slowly coming to terms with what happened to her, and deciding to build awareness about the act, is one of the few spines the picture hangs onto, as minor storylines otherwise flourish and fade – the fine American actor Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) briefly appears as a New Yorker Waris runs into in London and then his hometown, but despite the actor’s calm assurance he can’t find a place in the narrative.
Desert Flower also places an uncomfortable emphasis on celebrating Waris’ professional success, even though the commercial exploitation of her beauty is just a less obvious form of commodification than her father selling her. She strides the catwalk in triumphant montages, but Horman isn’t responsive to the idea of one extreme world being exchanged for another, or how the capturing of her subject’s image might change her. The movie ticks off boxes and ends where it has always intended to: having Waris address the United Nations about the wrongs of female genital mutilation. Yet it cannot get past the simplest of outlooks, with Waris as victim, survivor or star; there’s little insight into who she really is.
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