Cinequest 21 Premiere of “Desert Flower”: The Beauty of Courage


March 10, 2011. San Jose, CA.

True Beauty

From the hot terrain of the Somali desert, to the haute runways of London, Paris, Milan and New York, comes the heroic true-life story of model Waris Dirie, whose inner strength, survival and courage far exceeds her physical beauty.

“Desert Flower,” which premiered at Cinequest 21 at the California Theater in downtown San Jose, is an adaption of the autobiography of Waris, a well-known supermodel, who, at a young age, courageously left her nomadic clan in Gallcaio, Somalia, to escape all its barbaric, ancient traditions.

Waris Dirie

Although discovered for her natural and exotic beauty while working at a McDonald’s restaurant in London, Waris’ story far exceeds the typical rags-to-riches story that most of us are used to. As a young girl, Waris faced the utmost injustice that plagues over 8,000 young girls every day in Africa; that of female genital mutilation. At the age of three, her mother took her to an elder who cut away her “uncleanliness.” In her culture’s tradition, only a girl who had undergone clitoral circumcision was deemed worthy to marry. If she was not circumcised, she would be considered unclean and her virtue would be equated to that of a whore.

Upon surviving one monstrous ordeal as a child, as a teenager, Waris took it upon herself to escape another dismal, fore-coming future; being married off to an older man in her village whose age was comparable to that of a grandfather. However, upon her brave journey through the rough terrain of her native land in search of salvation, she was also rapped en route while making her way to finding her grandmother in the city.

Liya Kebede and Waris Dirie

Yet all these horrendous occurrences did not deter Waris from pursuing a better life. With the help of her grandmother, Waris was able to travel to London, where, while initially homeless, alone in a new land and not knowing the language, managed to befriend an eccentric retail clerk, who, at first, thought Waris was going to shoplift a yellow summer-dress she was admiring. Eventually, that same clerk became Waris’ first true friend in this strange, new land.  She also was her ally, and helped her start her new life in London.

Worthy of mention is the actress who portrayed Waris in the film. Liya Kebede, a famous model herself, gave an emotional and touching performance while demonstrating Waris’ vulnerability, innocence, and inner as well as outer beauty. Liya was Waris incarnate, as she could not be more perfect for this challenging yet inspiring role. And, her striking resemblance to the model also granted her the luxury of playing the role as authentically as possible, down to the naturally curly, short hair they both wear.

A True Diva

Upon the ending of the film, Cathleen Miller, an associate professor in the MFA program at San Jose State University, and co-writer of Waris’ autobiography, answered questions from a moved audience about what Waris is like and what she is currently doing. Miller explained that, although Waris was portrayed as quiet, demure, and naïve in the film, in reality, she is “a true diva.” She shared with the audience the story of the first time Waris came to live with her in her home in Lewistown, Pennsylvania–a quiet place where they were to begin work on the book. As Miller explained, when she and her husband went to pick Waris up from the train station, she was nowhere in sight. Then, all of a sudden, the conductor of the train had Waris by the collar and was forcing her off. The reason, as Miller continued to explain, was that Waris had lost her jacket somewhere on the train, so she was holding up an intercontinental train until she found it. Quite diva-like, indeed.

Author, Cathleen Miller

Another story Miller shared with the audience was the story of what happened when they reached her home after picking Waris up from the train station. As Miller explained, she and her husband live near a 300-acre corn patch with open fields and the horizon visible in the distance. Waris, now living in the city-jungle of Manhattan, missed the open terrain of her country. As a child, she was used to living in the bush where she had the freedom to roam and watch both the sunrise and the sunset. So when she saw this open space upon exiting the pick-up truck, she told Miller, “Mama, I just have to run.” So she took off running as if she was a cheetah that was once held captive in a cage but was now free. Of course she soon returned to Miller’s home, where together they wrote her emotional autobiography.

Life of a Model

Through her life experience, and now as a world-renown supermodel, Waris’ position grants her the ability to reach greater audiences. By telling her story, she was invited to become a UN special ambassador, which gave her a platform where she was able to bring awareness to this primitive, barbaric, and previously unknown act; that of female genital mutilation. Waris also founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna, Austria, whose mission is to raise awareness regarding female genital mutilation. Waris also started the Desert Dawn Foundation, which raises money for medical clinics and schools in her country.

A truly beautiful and remarkable film about the strength of the human spirit, “Desert Flower” is a film that will touch your soul and captivate your heart. A worthy film for all to see, “Desert Flower” will change your perspective of what it means to have real beauty, and how inner strength will always surpass outer beauty, no matter what the circumstances.

For more information about the film and about Waris Dirie, please visit:

Film Review by Sophia M. Papadopoulos

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