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Desert Flower's Hormann & Kebede

Years to Bloom — Sherry Hormann and Liya Kebede plant Desert Flower

By John Esther

After a childhood diet of abuse, slavery and disfigurement, at the age of 13 Waris Dirie escaped from the desert of Somalia to London, England, where she spent her adolescent years and early adulthood as a maid in her country's London embassy. After she lost her thankless job, Dirie was homeless.

Thanks to lots of luck and a little love, the poor, illiterate nomad from Africa climbed out from under the seedy streets and slummy hotels of London to the runways of some of the most glamorous fashion designers in the world.

On the surface, Dirie's story sounds like some random-fated rags-to-riches story, but behind the cover girl lurks a child scarred with terror.

Based on the European-best selling book by Dirie and Cathleen Miller, writer-director Sherry Hormann's seemingly light treatment of Dirie's youth during much of Desert Flower – although there are some horrific parts of Dirie's life exposed between the film's incidents of female camaraderie and model runways (from sparkling shoots to dreary London hotel hallways) – works its way into a crescendo of outcry against the barbaric practice of female genitalia mutilation.

With no legitimate basis in law or religion, female genitalia mutilation is an injustice happening to six thousand girls worldwide every day. That means one female is mutilated every 14.4 seconds around the clock; or, to put it another way, during the 124-minute running time of Desert Flower, over 516 girls fell victim to a practice nowhere mentioned in the Koran; or, to put it another way, during the estimated five minutes it will take you to read this article, nearly 21 girls have been traumatized, sliced and stitched without anesthesia, but with parental consent, if not participation, too.

For the role of Dirie, Hormann cast Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede (The Good Shepherd; Lord of War), a supermodel and Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization. The film also stars Sally Hawkins as Dirie's best friend, Marilyn, and Timothy Spall as the photographer who discovered the working girl.

In this exclusive interview we spoke to Hormann and Kebede about the film.

UR Chicago: Why did you want to make this film?

Sherry Hormann: It's a story that has to be told. It's an issue we don’t know a lot about and knowing that 6000 girls a day are mutilated. And, just think about it, a nomad girl, illiterate, survives war, being a maid and then giving that historic speech in front of the U.N. It gives me a lot of hope.

Liya Kebede: It's a really an amazing story; one that needs to be told. She's an incredible woman; I was inspired by her.

UR: Did you have any more direct political intentions with the film?

SH: Political intentions? I'm not a politician. I'm an entertainer. I strongly believe in human rights. I strongly believe no human being should be hurt. I believe humor is the best weapon to survive. The grayer it gets during the day, the more I try to pull out my sense of humor. This is why I tried to balance the drama with comedy. Otherwise you can't digest what's going on in her life.

UR: How did the making of the film change you?

SH: My next film has a political topic as well and Desert Flower might provide me with more courage, maybe, and more attention on what's going on.

LK: Before making this film, Sherry and I sat down and I remember Sherry said to me, "You know this film is going to change your life, right?" It did. [Laughs.] We learned a lot. I had a lot of personal growth in this movie. I was really inspired by her. This film will change everyone who comes close to it, whether you are making it or watching it.

UR: What do you think you have in common with Waris?

LK: We have some things. To a certain degree I can see what it must have felt like to leave your home and go somewhere new and start all over and learn the ropes, adjust yourself and all these kinds of things. I can see a little bit how she must have felt, even though we come from different backgrounds. I can see how she went into fashion.

UR: She goes from such impoverishment to high fashion.

LK: It's a stark contrast – the access of everything. She can't even understand it. Even when she becomes a successful model, her house is so stark. It's like she's now comfortable and she doesn’t really know what to do with it. She's never really comfortable, even in the end.

UR: How have American audiences responded so far? Are they different from other audiences around the globe?

SH: The screenings I've had around the globe are great. We had it at film festivals, but in Europe we've had school classes streaming in and we had the European Union supporting us, even though they didn’t support me at all while I was writing (the screenplay). We've had a huge response from South America – where I never expected it. You never know. This movie has no stars attached. It's a low budget movie. It's a difficult topic, but it comes along as an entertaining movie. It's not the art house-ish movie. I don’t know how the American audiences will respond. What do you think?

UR: It will probably work on a few levels. Liya, have people changed toward you?

LK: We've really had the kind of reaction we wanted from the audience. People come out of the screeners overwhelmed and touched and moved and educated about something new. It's a wonderful reaction. People were able to go to the cinema and spend two hours on a journey.

UR: How do you think the way the film ends will impact audiences, especially with regard to younger American females?

LK: Because it ends with the U.S. speech?

UR: Not so much the U.N. speech as the penultimate scene where we see the worst of the worst happens to Waris?

SH: I debated that a lot, believe me. I've rewritten the script several times and in the editing room I changed the structure many times. At the every end, I decided with the editor (Clara Fabry) that I wanted the hero to be understood, to be loved. I wanted to give her a huge hug. I also didn’t want it to look like becoming a model is easy. I wanted to come with a hammer at the end. Nothing was easy. There's a huge scar, a secret, behind the whole life of this woman. I wanted people to leave the movie theater being pensive, debating what's going on.

LK: It's a bold move on Sherry's part. It's a necessary one. It has truth. It's important that something like this is shown truthfully.

UR: When I was watching it, I started to become more and more apprehensive because I thought the film was going to be a rags-to-riches story and that the worst of the worst things that happened to Waris would be reduced to a conversation Waris had with Marilyn in the bedroom.

LK: And then they gave you exactly what you wanted. [Laughs.]

UR: To the film's considerable credit. It wallops the viewer in the face with some hard truth. The viewer will not depart from your film with a "feel good" feeling. Sure, they will be happy Waris survived and the work she does to bring this phenomenon to the world's attention, but there are other deep issues involved. For example, there is the issue of American girls not being able to live up to the images of the media. Maybe American girls who can afford a film ticket will not feel so sorry for themselves after watching the film? Maybe they will think, "Okay, I may never be the cover girl, but I don’t have that kind of horror inside me, either. I have a more balanced life."

SH: Right. Look beyond your pink bubble. You open up the news and it's always the same topic. You just have to turn your head a little to see what's going on. Africa is always the forgotten continent. You can watch a movie where you laugh and it's lighthearted, but also where you feel pain and where you cry.

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    Desert Flower's Hormann & Kebede - INTERVIEWS - UR Chicago

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