Desert Flower is about a little girl in Somalia, victim of genital mutilation, who escapes her arranged marriage and makes her way to London, basically on foot, to become…a supermodel! You can’t make that kind of plot up. It’s based on the autobiography of former model and current human-rights activist Waris Dirie. This often over-scored sentimental tale of survival is, at first glance, less Western-centric than Pratibha Parmar’s Warrior Marks, a documentary on female genital mutilation that has author Alice Walker travelling to Africa to interview women who perform the mutilation, dropping her jaw in disapproving horror every time she hears it from the horse’s mouth. Although Desert Flower wears its intentions on its sleeves, choosing televisual storytelling over nuance, there is a distinct pleasure in watching an awkward Somali girl in the big city go from Nell to Iman in 60 seconds.
The makeover scene, which strangely comes after Waris (Liya Kebede) and her roommate (Sally Hawkins) compare vaginas and Waris realizes not all women are physically mutilated, is quite infectious. The quick flashes, outfit changes, the fierce walk, you almost expect her to lip-sync for her life too. The film’s unabashed willingness to go from bleak topical piece on genital mutilation to guilty-pleasure glamour can be disconcerting, if not offensive, especially because the faboosh bits seem to lack the ironic awareness of camp. Lines like “Givenchy in the morning, then Chanel and Dior in the afternoon” and “Thursday is Donatella’s birthday party and rumor has it Johnny Depp is gonna be there…minus Vanessa…” will either give you multiple gay orgasms or make you want to stick a pencil in the eye.
The jarring effect of going from photo-shoot glamour to documentary-esque flashbacks of a three-year-old getting her vagina sewed up might be part of the film’s point, but it can be paralyzing for an audience trying to enjoy the fabness and appreciate the seriousness. There is also something perverse about having Estee Lauder supermodels, in fiction and in real life, cast as antidotes for ordinary women’s everyday horror in Africa. From the playbook of “It gets better” naiveté, the suggestion is that if only little girls living in the desert could all just get some runway work in civilized corners of cosmopolitan Western Europe then all would be swell.
Although Desert Flower‘s final message is spelled out by Waris with a deceivingly Judith Butler-sounding “Let us try to change what it means: To be a woman,” the change seems to be necessary for the non-white women of elsewhere, as the adequateness of fashionable London girls’ womanhood goes unquestioned. No suggestion as to whether the Western woman herself isn’t sewed up in her own way here.