J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dirie’s Story: Desert Flower

Few supermodels should be compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the courageous Somali-born former Dutch MP. However, Waris Dirie experienced similar horrors as a young child. Both were forced to undergo the barbarities of female genital mutilation (FGM) and both have publically spoken out against the practice as adults. However, unlike Hirsi Ali, Dirie has not been the target of death threats (fortunately for her), having narrowly focused her criticism on FGM. Yet, she undeniably endured great pain and humiliation before becoming the toast of the fashion world. Adapting Dirie’s memoir-novel, writer-director Sherry Hormann tells a real life rags-to-high couture story in Desert Flower (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A shallow fashion writer wants to do a puff piece on Dirie. However, the model is about to drop something heavy on her: the unvarnished truth. In overlapping flashbacks, viewers watch in disgust as the thirteen year-old Dirie is sold off to the harem of a lecherous old man. Running away from home, she becomes the de-facto house slave of the Somali ambassador to Britain, a distant but heartless relative. When the ambassador is recalled during the Somali Civil War, Dirie is left behind to fend for herself on the streets of London.

Though she speaks little English, her innate goodness wins over Marilyn, an aspiring dancer, who probably shouldn’t be. Her looks and demeanor also attract the eye of Terry Donaldson, a hard-to-impress fashion photographer. Yet, the butchery she barely survived as a girl led to long-term physical and emotional problems that threaten Dirie’s bid for a new life.

While it can only show so much, Desert does not tip toe around the nature of the original mutilation. To its credit, the film gives viewers a visceral sense of FGM’s savagery. Still, it is rather coy about providing any wider perspective. Indeed, the only oblique reference to Islam occurs when a traumatized Dirie seeks solace at a mosque. Desert is still a rather bold film, but it leaves an awful lot of contextual blanks for the audience to fill in for themselves (should they be so enterprising).

Frankly, simply broaching the subject of FGM on film constitutes a valuable contribution to public discourse. It also lends itself to some memorable drama. The scene in which Dirie reveals her condition to Marilyn is particularly notable for its honesty and sensitivity.

Indeed, the relationship between the two women is one of the film’s strongest elements. In addition to her supermodel credibility, Liya Kebede also expresses the right vulnerability and resolve as Dirie. Providing both occasional comic relief and a working class conscience, Sally Hawkins always hits the perfect note as Marilyn. She is honestly quite endearing in a part rife with the potential pitfalls of quirkiness. Even though he never breaks a sweat as Donaldson, Timothy Spall again proves himself to be one of those British actors who are always interesting to watch, regardless of the circumstances.

In terms of tone, Hormann is a bit erratic, going for a cutesy laugh in one scene, only to follow it up with the painfully real. Regardless, she keeps the pacing brisk and Martin Todsharow’s soundtrack evokes a sense of sweeping triumph that really rings in the ear. As an advocacy piece, Desert picks its fights rather judiciously, but as cinema, it is a crowd pleaser. Recommended as only too topical entertainment, Desert opens this Friday (3/18) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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