Desert Flower opens this Friday in NY and LA. It stars Liya Kebede as Waris Dirie, a woman who escaped from Somalia and became a top fashion model and UN spokeswoman against female genital mutilation. Director Sherry Hormann answered some questions about the film.
Women and Hollywood: How did you find this project?
Sherry Hormann: I think the project found me. I was given the book and I read it and said let's do it. And I met Waris and it was very sweet. We were sitting in a restaurant and she would not talk to me. I said I thought we were supposed to talk and then she looked at me and said you have the wrong skin color. And I said what? And she said you're not black. I said yes, but I am a woman, I am a human being and I think your story is far beyond any restrictions. And she said great that's the right answer. And I said what's going on is that a test? And then she laughed and we started talking and have been talking since.
WaH: Why do you think this is such an important story to tell in 2011?
SH: I think that we have a tendency if you look at the news to look at just a little angle of what is going on in the world and what is going on with women in the world is always secondary. That's the main reason to talk about Desert Flower and to be happy that it is being released in the United States. On the other hand Desert Flower is a true story. It is still breathtaking to realize that a little illiterate Shepard girl from Somalia makes such a stirring speech in front of the UN and is able to make a change. We talk about it. She is doing it.
WaH: You have an all-star cast in this film. How were you able to get them since I would imagine that the budget for this film was not very large?
SH: No, it was a very small budget especially because we did not have a star attached for the lead. We had a very great casting agent in London John Hubbard and his wife Roz, and I always dreamed of working with Tim Spall and I asked him if he would agree to play the part of the photographer. He said it is a very important issue and was more than happy to participate. As soon as he was on board all the others came on board. Every role is cast greatly and we have Liya who is amazing especially if you consider that this is her first major role.
WaH: What do you want people to walk out of the film thinking about?
SH: I want them to be more sensitive as to what is going on and I want them to go out and embrace life. I know that life might be very difficult sometimes but people should embrace it.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge for you as a director on this project?
SH: To handle the juxtaposition of shooting in Africa where nobody shot before. Having nomads in front of the camera who had never seen a white person before and then dealing with the fashion world and trying not to make it look like a cliche. I realized that it is a weird insane world and I was lucky that my main actress was really familiar with the fashion world so they were very supportive. That was the main challenge- shooting on three continents and four countries on a small budget.
WaH: It's much easier for women directors to get work outside of the United States. Do you have any comment on that?
SH: It's very difficult because it's not easy in Europe as well. I think we look at the female directors and we point them out as female directors but we still talk about female directors and male directors.
WaH: Do you have any sense as to why it is such a challenge?
SH: To make changes in patterns is always a long process. Baby steps. I also think that we as women should be proud of our femininity and not hide it and behave like men. If you look at our of my heroes, Kathryn Bigelow from The Hurt Locker. The film would have been harsher but she provided a lot of empathy.
WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?
SH: Have courage and use your sensitivity and femininity.
WaH: What are you doing next?
SH: I am writing a story that takes place in Israel and Palestine and I'm writing something about the search for happiness.
WaH: Is there anything else you want people to know about the movie?
SH: I want people to know that it is an entertaining movie. I think it is important to point that out because it is a movie where you can laugh and cry and you are touched by the miracles of life.
Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images Europe