When you imagine the various allegories a filmmaker might reach for in telling a story involving female circumcision (otherwise known as female genital mutilation), the feel-good Cinderella story is not among them. In fact, until a moment ago, it was probably hard to imagine the terms "feel good" and "female circumcision" coexisting in the same sentence. But there may be no more accurate way to describe "Desert Flower," writer-director Sherry Horman's adaptation of Waris Dirie's bestselling memoir, which opens in theaters Friday. The film follows Dirie's journey from a nomadic tribe in the Somali desert to a career on runways around the world while contending with the ongoing emotional grief and physical pain resulting from her brutal circumcision at age three. "In order to understand what’s going on in the mutilation scene, I decided to use humor as the best weapon to survive [the intensity of the subject-mattter]," explains Horman, a German director making her English-language feature debut. "I tried to balance humor and drama. Because without a relief once in a while you can’t open new doors for the audience to understand this unfamiliar world."
The film stars Ethiopia-born model-turned-actress Liya Kebede ("The Good Shepherd") as Waris, whose good-natured innocence and exotic beauty compels a spunky shopgirl (Sally Hawkins) to take her in as a roommate and a famous photographer (Timothy Spall) to induct her into the ranks of top models. Clearly it wasn't a stretch to frame Dirie's life as a rags-to-riches story, considering she goes from sleeping in London alleyways to a career on runways after she's discovered while cleaning floors in a McDonald's by renowned fashion photographer Terence Donovan. Still, when asked how much was altered in adapting Dirie's book, Horman admits, "A lot. Sometimes you have authentic movies based on a true story that need to be really faithful to the reality, like 'The Fighter.' For this movie I wanted to capture a more universal story, so I took the essence. It’s a Cinderella story and what I built in was the relationship with Sally Hawkins because I believe you cannot have a journey like this all by yourself. There are always little helpers."
Considering its challenging subject-matter, that kind of good will and good luck were also key components in getting the film made. Finding a lead actress was the production's first and biggest hurdle. Horman saw more than 3,000 actresses for the role and what clinched her decision came after Dirie watched Kebede's audition DVD. "Waris was very nervous about the cast," recalls Horman. "Her son was in the room while she watched Liya’s audition and her son was playing and he looked up on the DVD player and said, 'Hey, mom, that's you.'"
"I have to send him flowers," jokes Kebede, when reminded of her early endorser. Though Kebede didn't endure the kind of hardships Dirie did in her early years -- she was discovered while attending a French school in Ethiopia -- she felt a deep kinship with the character and was aching for the opportunity to win the role. "I related to that story of leaving your nest -- your cocoon -- and going somewhere new and learning the ropes and surviving in a foreign land," recalls Kebede, who has graced the covers of every major fashion magazine and is now a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization, focusing on issues of maternal health. "I related to the fact that she went into fashion. We experienced that differently, but we had that in common. Also her advocacy."
This was, by far, Kebede's most substantial and demanding acting experience. So to boost her confidence, Kebede took a method approach, immersing herself in a homeless community in London and traveling to Dirie's village in Somalia. She also had one other tool at her disposal. "I read the book and used it a lot for my performance," says Kebede, who was asked not to meet Dirie in order to ensure she played the role as written in the script, not the flesh-and-blood person. "I didn’t meet her until the last day of the shoot. It was almost uncomfortable because I had been given this window into her life and I was standing there knowing these things about her. I was so awkward and was really nervous. But she was really wonderful. She broke the ice and gave me a hug and said 'We're sisters now.'"
The filmmakers' most gratifying moment came months later, when they arranged to screen the film for Dirie's community in Somalia. They erected a movie screen in the desert and hired someone to translate simultaneously as the film played for the 4,000 nomads who showed up to watch what was, in most cases, their only experience watching anything on a screen. "At the end of the movie a father stood up and said, 'I have six daughters and I don't want this to happen to them. I was not aware of what’s going on and how they do it because we don’t talk about it,'" Horman recalls. "After that, twenty-three other fathers stood up. And it was so moving because they just do it. They don’t reflect it. It’s not an intellectual communication going on. What they do is survive the day and hopefully the next one."