Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Desert Flower and Female Genital Mutilation

“When I was a child, I said, ‘I do not want to be a woman.’ Why, when it is so painful? Let us try and change what that means, to be a woman.”

Waris Dirie was the first woman to make the practice of Female Genital Mutilation public. She talked openly about the experience she suffered as a child, when  living in Somalia in a nomadic tribe, during an interview that brought awareness to the subject. She then went on to become a UN ambassador for the abolition of FGM and she is now actively working towards the cause.

It is sometimes hard to be a woman, indeed, and Fondation Follereau Luxembourg tried to pass this message to a crowd that is better off than others last Monday. 6 February is the International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation, a day and a problem that many of us are not aware of. Waris Dirie was present to welcome the audience in the screening of Desert Flower, based on her story, and to say a word in the conference on the topic (a conference that the Grand Duchess Maria Teresa found it wise to attend).

A very emotional day it was, and I had to wait a bit for the humanitarian angst that overwhelmed me to go away before I report on it (do you ever have this feeling of being insufficient to this world and not caring enough or not caring actively?). FGM is a tough subject and an inhuman practice based, apparently, on   false religious grounds, common beliefs like the one  that states "Only a cut woman is a good woman", and old traditions; there is a big campaign against it ever since 1997, when Waris Dirie made her story public. The practice is proclaimed illegal in many African states, but it is not established as painful and unnecessary in people's minds, thus it's not yet abolished. There is still a lot of "cutting and sewing" going on everywhere in the world among believers of such traditions (that the Koran does not mention or encourage); millions of girls live this gruesome experience and are left traumatised forever in every possible sense.

Its depiction on screen and the overpowering, positive and polemic female narrative is my interest here. It can be said that Desert Flower is a simple film and that it uses many cinematic and scenaristic cliches, but effectively so (it left me with a headache, after serious sobbing). Let me first tell you that the film is based on the autobiography that Waris wrote, exposing every single detail on how she first understood that not every woman in this world is "cut", and how she tried to cope with it, as well as her road to fame -she is a retired model, an author and activist. The film begins in media res, which is interesting in itself as a mechanism; we find young Waris, interpreted by another gorgeous supermodel Liya Kebede, dressed in her African outfit, lost in the streets of London. She doesn't speak the language, she has no money, but an obsolete passport; she manages to survive nevertheless, thanks to her first English friend, an aspiring dancer and to her overweight of bravery and dedication to the idea of a better life.

Through a number of flash backs we see how Waris arrived from Somalia to London, while we witness her struggle with life itself, as a refugee with no working permit, as a timid girl that had no opportunity to embrace her sexuality and finds herself exposed in front of the camera for fashion's sake et cetera. It is a powerful narrative that is bigger than the viewer, meaning that it succeeds in making him/her feel the much-wanted identification (this does not include some resistant/indifferent viewers, of course). Liya Kebede is giving an overall good performance, even if we clearly see that she is an old friend of the camera and not a newbie, like Waris once has been. The choice of a female director, Sherry Horman, was essential here;  this kind of narrative is in better hands with some female intuition, even if, I have to admit, an African woman's experiences may differentiate a lot from a European woman's. Still, Sherry does a good job, in a very classic, yet effective way, as I said before. 

Desert Flower (2009) is an engaging watch and I want to thank here the Fondation Follereau for the organisation of the screening and Waris Dirie for her strength and interest in sharing through book-writing. Well, I guess I would also like to thank my good luck for not being circumsised/cut and express my support and empathy to the girls that were less lucky. Female Genital Mutilation has to stop, this much is clear. And I'm proud of the fashion girls that use their "Beauty as a Weapon" towards a better world, as the book title (La beauté comme une arme)  by another model/UN ambassador Tasha de Vasconcelos puts it.

Enjoy the trailer:

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