Based on the international best-selling novel by Waris Dirie, Desert Flower is the extraordinary true story of the woman who crossed a desert – and changed the world. Led by a stellar cast that includes Liya Kebede, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Anthony Mackie, and Juliet Stevenson, the movie has already grossed over $14 million, opening in 17 countries (by the end of 2010). The movie is written and directed by the award-winning German-American filmmaker Sherry Hormann, best known for her films Silent Shadow (her debut in 1991), Father’s Day (1996), and Guys and Balls (2004). With Desert Flower, Ms. Hormann tells the inspirational and powerful story of Waris Dirie (played by Kebede), a Somalian nomad who was circumcised at age 3, sold for marriage at 13 – and escaped Africa to one day become an international supermodel and later, a United Nations special ambassador for women’s rights. The 52-day shoot spanned four countries in three continents.
I had the pleasure of screening this poignant and compelling film last week (it opens in DC this Friday) and was honored to have the opportunity to ask Ms. Hormann a few questions. Here is a play-by-play of our exchange:
Eramo: I understand that you are a fellow New Yorker. Born in Kingston. Do you have any early New York memories – before moving to Germany at such a young age [age 6]?
Writer/Director Sherry Hormann
Hormann: Friday nights. My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they took me to the ice cream parlor first before going to watch a movie at the Drive-In. I fell asleep while driving, but woke up soon. The loudspeakers where blasting into the car, but I felt cozy and funny enough sheltered, while watching the movie secretly from the rear seat. I remember that I somehow managed to save the sprinkles from the sundae and by then they were all melted in my hand…Memories are a funny thing…
Eramo: As a German/American filmmaker, who are your influences – the directors who most inspire you?
Hormann: John Cassavettes and Howard Hawks were my initial influences.
Eramo: Now, I read that Peter Hermann [the film’s producer] was the first to approach you with this film. When you read Dirie’s book, what was it that motivated you to the point of wanting to direct Desert Flower?
Hormann: I was very clear that I did not want to make a biopic. Waris’ story is a global one. She is driven by courage and breaking the rules. Her life sounds like a Cinderella story on the surface, but behind that beauty and sudden success, she surprisingly reveals her scar; a scar that at that point was unheard of. Imagine…she was the first woman to publicly speak about FGM [female genital mutilation]. Her journey — far beyond the atrocity — is deeply encouraging.
Eramo: You managed to assemble an exceptional cast for this very important film. How did you go about finding and casting the very beautiful Liya Kebede as Waris Dirie?
Hormann: I feel extremely lucky about the cast. We have Somali nomads…some of whom haven’t seen a white person in their lives before, a very strong British cast on the other side and a newcomer. I wanted the actress playing Waris to look Somali. So we knew that we had to search. Ros and John Hubbard started a long casting process in Africa, Europe and the United States…and – finally we found the stunning Liya! John called me and said, “Sherry, I am in New York. Our Waris just left the room…” And he was right.
Eramo: How involved was Ms. Dirie in the casting process?
Hormann: Waris watched Liya’s audition and luckily enough, her son was in the room playing. He turned towards the TV and said, “Hey mom, that’s you!”
Eramo: In many ways, Desert Flower seems to be exploring new ground for you as a filmmaker. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced artistically in tackling such difficult subject matter?
Hormann: Opposites! We went to Djibouti at the border of war-beaten Somalia. It hadn’t rained for 18 months. Filming in Djibouti is filming without a plan while you make all these plans in your head. You often react on what happens and you’re happy when you manage to get that on film. In the streets of London, we shot with a hidden camera. One night Liya was approached by Somali immigrants who thought she was in need of help and offered her shelter. On the other hand, you explore these extraordinary actors like Sally [Hawkins], Tim Spall or Juliet Stevenson and try to catch a glimpse of that fashion world. But overall you try to find a subtle way to slowly reveal the main topic without being too much of a messenger. I strongly believe in the power of emotions; if it is laughter or tears. With Desert Flower we have both.
Eramo: There is a flashback scene of the day that dramatically changed Waris’ life. It is an excruciatingly painful scene to watch – and frankly, makes James Franco’s infamous scene in 127 Hours look like he’s baking cookies. Where did you find the young girl who plays the 3-year old Waris?
Hormann: A great French woman in our production had spent 5 months in Djibouti to find the whole Somali cast. It was very difficult given the fact that there is absolutely no tradition for acting there — no live theatre, no movie theaters…nothing! All closed due to poverty. So finally she found this little girl Safa playing in the narrow streets of the shanty towns, shyly smiling at her first white woman. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is true.
Eramo: And how did you go about filming that heartbreaking sequence?
Hormann: I admit…it was the darkest day in my career as a film director. But, I always believed that this scene is the core of the movie. What happened was: the little girl (Safa) just looked into the face of this woman who used to work as a circumciser for 40 years…she saw the razor blade and started crying immediately. These girls all know. Later we set up a foundation…Safa is going to school now, her family is supported and she will not be mutilated. That was always a promise Peter Herrmann and I made.
Eramo: This might be a difficult question, but I am curious to know…I’m not sure that I can recall a movie that tackled the subject of female genital mutilation in such an upfront manner. This may be a first. Of course, the film depicts the horrors and injustices of this dangerous procedure. But this is a custom that goes back to the infancy stage of many cultures. To them, I would think that they view this as righteous and compulsory. What would you say to those who think this film takes a reckless or irresponsible position to such an age-old custom? Do more “primitive” cultures just need to “wake up”?
Hormann: I am not a politician. I am a woman, a human being and I don’t want anybody to be hurt on purpose. I don’t see any good in a ritual where girls die, or die later from delivering a baby or live constantly in pain because some outdated philosophy of “uncleanness” drives them.
I will tell you a story. We went back to Djibouti. We screened the movie in the desert where we shot. We set up a screen and expected 800 people. Well, in the end, 4,000 people showed up. A man was standing next to the screen and simultaneously translated the English parts into Arabic for the audience. At the end of the movie it was very silent. Then a random Nomad stood up. He said, “I am the father of six girls. I was not aware of what precisely is happening to our daughters when they do it. We don’t talk about it. I don’t want my daughters to be hurt. This has to stop!” The father was followed by 23 others.
Eramo: Unbelievable. That was very brave of him. So overall, how has audience reception been to Desert Flower so far?
Hormann: Desert Flower has seen more countries than I have ever traveled to. The reactions are very moving as this flower works on a universal level, independent of any cultural background. I guess we are still all searchers, thank God!
Eramo: The UN speech that Waris makes near the end of the film…was this her actual speech verbatim – or was creative license taken?
Hormann: Parts of that speech are actual quotations.
Eramo: And the love interest…the film leaves it open for interpretation, but did Waris and Harold (Anthony Mackie) ever become romantically involved?
Hormann: Doesn’t romance always leave room for our own interpretations?
Eramo: Thank you, Sherry, for taking time out to answer a few of my questions. You did an outstanding job of bringing Ms. Dirie’s courageous journey to the screen.
Hormann: Thank you for your kind words. It is deeply appreciated.