News / USA

Film Tracks Woman's Path from Desert Nomad to Supermodel Activist

Somali-born Waris Dirie now helps lead the global fight against female genital mutilation

A scene from
A scene from "Desert Flower" with Timothy Spall and Liya Kebede.

Multimedia

Carolyn Weaver

The life of former supermodel Waris Dirie, who was born into a nomadic Somali clan in 1965, sounds like fiction. A goatherd by age six who cared for her family’s animals, Dirie ran away at 13 to avoid being sold into marriage.

That was the start of a remarkable journey, dramatized in the feature film “Desert Flower," based on Dirie’s autobiography.

Running away

It's the first major acting role for another top model, Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede.

“I think first of all, every time you want to play somebody who is real is always challenging and always scary, because you are given a responsibility of someone’s real life,” Kebede says. “So, definitely I was really intimidated and scared.”

As a child in a culture that practiced female genital mutilation (FGM), Dirie knew no other way of life. But when her father tried to marry her to an old man, she ran away. She walked for days across the desert, then hitchhiked to relatives in Mogadishu, evading both human and natural dangers. The following year, she leapt at the chance to go to London, to work as a maid at the Somali embassy.

In her autobiography, Dirie writes of her confusion at seeing white people and a flush toilet for the first time on the airplane that took her to a new life. For the next four years, she washed floors and dishes seven days a week and practiced speaking the English she heard on television. She also taught herself to read and write, since her employers discouraged her education.

Being discovered

At 18, faced with the likelihood of having to return to Somalia when the ambassador was recalled, Dirie fled again. She found refuge at a women’s hostel and got a job as a cleaner in a fast-food restaurant. That's where she was discovered by a well-known fashion photographer.

In the film, Juliet Stevenson - who plays a tough modeling-agency executive - briskly interrogates the young immigrant, asking her, “Why do you want to be a model?”

“Being a model is better than being cleaning lady,” Dirie replies.

Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede plays Dirie in 'Desert Flower.'
Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede plays Dirie in 'Desert Flower.'

“I was really touched by that kind of Cinderella story and the immigrant story and overall talking about FGM,” says Sherry Hormann, the Germany-based writer and director of "Desert Flower," “but in a way that you don’t lose a sense of humor, because I think that humor is the strongest weapon to survive.”

Fighting female genital mutilation

Hormann sees "Desert Flower" as more than an entertaining film biography. It’s also a broadside against FGM, a widespread practice in parts of Africa and Asia.

Like all her female relatives, Dirie was circumcised as a small girl, by a traditional female circumciser, an event the film dramatizes. Dirie’s clan practiced the most extreme form, in which all the external genitalia are cut off, and the remaining flesh stitched tightly together, leaving a hole the size of a pinhead for urination and menstruation.

That form of FGM is sometimes fatal, experts say. Girls can die from blood loss, shock or subsequent infections, as a sister and cousin of Dirie's did. Life-long pain, loss of sexual pleasure and other health problems, including high-risk childbirth, are virtually inevitable.

In "Desert Flower," Dirie is shocked to learn that not all women are cut. After struggling with physical and emotional pain, she ultimately seeks corrective surgery. The film dramatizes how in 1997, at the top of her modeling career, Dirie also became the first celebrity to speak out against FGM. She first told her story in a magazine interview and then in a speech at the United Nations. After being named a special U.N. representative on FGM, she left modeling to devote herself to the cause.

Making a difference

Actress Liya Kebede hopes the film will take Dirie’s message to all the places where FGM is still practiced. “I think the movie is very gentle and very sensitive, at the same time quite honest with things,” Kebede says. “I think it’s a wonderful story to watch, entertaining and fun, while addressing an issue that’s quite present, and especially in Africa.”

The film was shot partly in Djibouti, near the border with Somalia, and many of the actors are desert nomads from Dirie’s culture. Hormann says she fulfilled a promise to the people that she would return to show them the finished film. Several thousand attended the open-air screening in the desert, she says.

“At the end, it was silent, and a nomad father stood up and he said, ‘We at home we don’t talk about mutilation, we just do it. And I see it for the very first time. And none of my daughters, and I have six daughters, will ever be mutilated, ever.’ And after he stood up, many other fathers stood up. And at the end there were 23 fathers standing in the crowd. And you sit there as a filmmaker and you think, 'Wow, you can do something, baby steps, but you can do something.'”

"Desert Flower" has already been shown in Europe and South America, but is only now arriving in the U.S. as well as Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. Dirie, now 46, lives in Austria, where she campaigns for women’s rights through her Desert Flower Foundation.

You May Like

Unpaid Kurdish Fighters Sign of Economic Woes

Sharp cuts in Kurdistan's budget by Baghdad, falling oil revenue, coping with refugees, inflated public sector have hit regional economy hard More

Koreas Exchange List of Envoys for Family Reunion Talks

Officials will discuss date, venue and number of participants for reunion; Seoul hopes to hold event late this month More

China Targets 197 in Online Speech Crackdown

Nearly 200 punished for 'spreading rumors' online in ongoing crackdown on free speech More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 02, 2015 6:19 PM
Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.

VOA Blogs