Desert Flower follows the true story of Waris Dirie, who escaped Somalia at the age of 13 and spent her adolescence as a maid in her country’s London embassy. A regime change forces her onto the streets of London where she is soon discovered by a famous fashion photographer. This scared, homeless runaway evolves into a glamorous runway superstar. While her beauty and courage open doors to an exciting career, her life is even more transformed by her tenacity to fight against the poverty and cultural traditions that had forced her to run away from her home and family. Her work resulted in her being named United Nations special ambassador for women’s rights in Africa in 1997.
Desert Flower is written and directed by Germany’s Sherry Hormann and is based on Dirie’s autobiography, co-written with Cathleen Miller, Desert Flower is an international best seller with more than 11 million copies sold, produced by Peter Hermann , with Benjamin Hermann and Danny Krausz serving as co-producers.
Bijan Tehrani: What initially motivated you to make Desert Flower?
Sherry Hormann: I was reading the book, it was very popular in Europe and I was totally taken by the idea that it was a true story. This is a story about a little illiterate girl, a shepherd, who ends up speaking in front of the United Nations. As a human being you do not want another human being to be harmed so I though that it was a perfect story to be told, because it is about courage and overcoming social rules and that you can make a change if you are courageous enough.
Bijan: Did you also have an eye toward the situation that women in today’s modern world face?
Sherry: Well I was aware about the practice of female genital cutting, I was not aware how widespread it was, but now I know that it is still happening. As you can tell I decided not to do a historic movie, I made the movie as if it is happening today, and I also wanted to emphasize on that. I met very interesting women in Kenya, who are fighting against this practice, and they were Islamic woman, very religious, that wanted to make a change. Let me tell you that in Djibouti, in north of Somalia, where we shot a part of the film, people, the Nomads, have not seen a white person in their life before our visit. Therefore it was moving experience for them and us. When we finished the movie, I promised them that I would come back with that movie and screen it for them. And a few months ago we went back to Djibouti and we found out that there is no movie theatre there and we put a screen up in the desert; we were expecting 800 people and in the end 4000 people showed up. We had an Arabic translator and while the English text was running he was translating and at the end of the movie there was a silence. Then a father stood and said that he was not aware of what was going in their families and he does not want his daughter to be harmed in the future, he was followed by twenty three other fathers, so it is all about education and you have to take baby steps to bring awareness to this topic.
Bijan: Did you actually meet Waris in person?
Sherry: Yes, I told the producer that this was the most important step, I needed to see her and we needed to build up the movie with her, because she is going to be seeing herself portrayed in a feature film. So we met and it was not an easy meeting. At the beginning she looked at me and said “This is about Africa and that you know nothing about my country”, I said that I was a woman and human being and that your story is a global story. We are all connected and you have taught us all to be courageous.
Bijan: How did you go about casting the film and was Waris involved in the casting stage?
Sherry: You know I wanted the film to look authentic and this is why we shot it in a country that we have not shot before, I wanted a Somali looking woman to portray her, so Waris was very nervous about the decision with Libya Kerbed playing Waris. But her son was in the room, were we were discussing this and he looked at the screen and he said mom that is you, and finally she agreed with that decision.
Bijan: How did you work with the actors, did they meet the real people they were portraying in the film?
Sherry: No, I did want the actors to meet the real people as we were shooting; they met them at the very last day of filming. Because Desert Flower is not a Biopic film, it is a global story and it is more like taking away from meticulous research on Waris personality and it is more about her message and her life.
Bijan: Do you allow your actors to improvise?
Sherry: Yes, it depends on the scenes. In this movie we had to combine Nomads who had never seen a camera before with brilliant British actors. As a director this was a real challenge for me, with the Nomads it was more about capturing the real moments, Sally Hawkins is a woman who can improvise like there is no tomorrow and she is offering so many ideas as well with Timothy Spall; and when you write your own scripts you can allow yourself to change dialogue.
Bijan: Despite Desert Flower being a serious movie, there are many moments of humor in the film, are you a fan of comedy films.
Sherry: I like comedies myself and it was a promise that I made to Waris that we were going to do an entertaining movie to bring in the subject in an entertaining way. I think that humor is always the best weapon.
Bijan: How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
Sherry: I had an American DP, Ken Kelsch, he used to do all the Abel Ferrara movies, he was used to be very spontaneous on set which is very important in Africa because you cannot plan in a country where there is no film industry. You can not plan on camels to get up when you need them to, and our film was a very low budget movie and we had to plan everything ahead of time. When we came to the western world, we could finally build images and go about creating movements and images.
Bijan: How has the audiences reaction to Desert Flower?
Sherry: It has a huge effect on audiences, we started in Europe and it was very successful there. We had young people coming to the screenings, but in general we had a very broad audience. When I started the project I approached many non-governmental organizations, I also approached the government and they didn’t respond to help me and when the movie was out, they approached us, like the government in Germany or European Union, so movie build up certain awareness that is treefic.
Bijan: Do you have any new projects lined up?
Sherry: Yes I am, I am working on a project that takes place in Palestine and Israel and I am working on a project about happiness.