Liya Kebede blossoms as an actress in ‘Desert Flower’

Liya Kebede
Liya Kebede, photo by National Geographic Entertainment

Playing a real-life person in a movie is hard, and it is even harder when that person has endured a lot of trauma that has to be recreated on screen. Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede went through this experience as an actress for “Desert Flower,” a feature film based on Somali model/activist Waris Dirie’s memoir of the same title. And although Kebede and Dirie had very different upbringings, they share many things in common that allowed Kebede to relate to Dirie in very profound ways.

The life story of Dirie is harrowing but inspirational. Growing up in a poor, nomadic family that lived in deserts of Somalia, Dirie experienced at a young age the brutal practice of female genital mutilation. The practice, which has been going on for thousands of years, involves girls as young as toddler age being circumcised and their genital areas sewn up, with the idea that only a girl’s future mate/husband can gain access to the sewn-up area. Those who believe in the practice of female genital mutilation think that girls and women who have not had this procedure are “unclean” and unsuitable for marriage. Although female genital mutilation has been banned in several countries, and many girls die or get severely infected from the procedure, the practice still continues among those who believe it is a necessary cultural tradition.

The movie “Desert Flower” portrays much of what happened to Dirie in real life: Having survived this early childhood trauma, she runs away from home at the age of 13, in order to escape an arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather. She ends up living with relatives in London, but they mistreat her, so she runs away again. Unable to speak English, Dirie ends up homeless on the streets of London. In the movie “Desert Flower,” she befriends an aspiring dancer named Marilyn (played by Sally Hawkins), who teaches Dirie about modern English culture, and she lets Dirie live with her until Dirie can afford her own place. While working at a fast-food restaurant at the age of 18, Dirie is discovered by a famous fashion photographer named Terry Donaldson (played by Timothy Spall; in real life, the photographer’s name was Terence Donovan), which sets Dirie on a path to becoming a successful model and an outspoken activist against female genital mutilation.

As one of the world’s top models, Kebede has accomplished the milestones that A-list supermodels accomplish, including gracing the cover of American Vogue and landing major contracts with companies such as Estée Lauder. Kebede is also a high-profile philanthropist, having become a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization’s maternal and child health program, as well as the founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation, which is aimed at similar causes. But she says one of her proudest accomplishments is “Desert Flower,” not only because it is her first starring role in a movie, but also because of its inspirational message. “Desert Flower” has already been released in several countries since 2009, and the movie is set for a U.S. release in select theaters on March 18, 2011. At the New York City press junket for “Desert Flower,” I recently sat down with Kebede to talk about the movie and how deeply she was affected by the experience of making “Desert Flower.”

What was your experience in meeting the real-life Waris Dirie?

Actually, before doing this film I never met Waris. I didn’t meet her during the [“Desert Flower”] shoot. I met her the last day of the shoot. It was really good of her to hand us this really fragile project and trusted Sherry [Hormann, the director of “Desert Flower”] mostly and all of us to take it and interpret it in the way it made sense for us. She was really good about giving us the space to do what we could do with it.

I met her the last day of the shoot. We had a dinner. It was kind of strange but great at the same time to meet this woman who, for me at least, I felt like I had known so much, and I felt like I had seen her life and felt her thoughts and things like that. And then to meet her physically was such a strange moment of knowing someone and not knowing someone.

I was definitely intimidated. I was really nervous. I was really worried. “What if she doesn’t like me? I’m supposed to play her life.” It’s very difficult to hand someone your whole life story to play, and you’ve never really met that person. I was really impressed with the courage that she had to sort of let us do it that way.

It was very awkward, but in a good way. And also later she told me how nervous she really was about meeting me, too. And then it took a little minute to break the ice. She actually broke the ice. I was acting more nervous than she was, I suppose. And she was really cool about, “OK, come here and give me a hug. Let’s just break this thing off.” And we did. And then it was cool. And then it was nice.

You’re involved in a lot of charity work for developing countries. How did any of your charity experiences or anyone you’ve met through your charity work inspire your performance in “Desert Flower”?

We started shooting in Djibouti first. And just being there and being in the desert with all those women — and a lot of women were circumcised — and talking to them and trying to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves in — all that I found really inspiring. I found some things to sort of tap into for this [movie].

In a way, with Waris, we have a lot of things in common” coming from East Africa … and coming to the West and dealing with that animal and coming into the fashion world. Also, her working at the U.N. [United Nations] and me also working for the U.N. on different things, but they’re quite similar. There’s a link to us that was sort of a bonus.

But at the same time, it was wonderful for me to discover the differences we had. And her life and being a nomad in Somalia and what that really meant. I had no idea what that meant until we were there and we were living with them [Somali nomads] and seeing them every day and looking at how they lived and how, really, they had nothing. She really came from this place that was nothing.

And what it took for her to having just nothing around her to know in her heart what’s right and what’s wrong always, for some reason, and [she] always did the right move for herself, and not really wondering what the others were doing, and having this blind faith in herself to always move forward no matter what happened. If it were me having to decide to stay in London, not knowing [anybody], not knowing the language … For her to decide things that were completely crazy like this, I found it to be very inspiring.

What did you discover about Somali culture that was different from your native Ethiopian culture?

Mostly what you discover is how similar everybody is. You find out how a lot of [the difference] is just politics. People really just want to have a simple life, and they’re really close together. I remember being in Djibouti, because that’s where we shot [part of “Desert Flower”], because that’s near the border [of Somalia]. I felt like I was home.

I was literally in a different country, but a lot of them spoke Amharic, which I was so surprised about. Actually, the woman who plays Waris’ mother in the film spoke Amharic, so that’s how we communicated. She didn’t speak English. She didn’t speak French, which I thought was hysterical.

And everybody drank Ethiopian coffee, so I used to sit around and drink Ethiopian coffee with them. They listen to Ethiopian music. I remember thinking, “It’s the same.” Everybody wants to be part of the same thing. The people on the top are [the ones] looking and dividing.

I’m Christian. Growing up in Ethiopia, it’s half-Christian and half-Muslim. You grow up with Muslim kids. I’m very much aware of their religion. Besides religion, a lot of it has to do with culture. And the culture actually seeps through and overlaps. [Somali and Ethiopian cultures] are more homogenous than we make of it.

Do you know if Waris’ aunt in London was as cruel to Waris in real life as it is portrayed in the “Desert Flower” movie?

I don’t see her as cruel. Looking at it, I think it comes from not having. Nobody really has anything, and nobody is really comfortable. I didn’t see it as a cruel thing. I think it’s surviving the way she knew how to.

So do you think the aunt’s behavior is because there is a pecking order in the tribe?

Yes, there is. Definitely.

Since female genital mutilation is still being done in a lot of countries, what do you think is necessary to eliminate this practice?

Education.

“Desert Flower” is a movie that is about turning points. What were some turning points in your life? And when did you know you wanted to be a model and actress?

I suppose like many people, you have a lot of turning points. For me, this movie is definitely a turning point, the most recent thing. That definitely changed my life in the way I want to go forward.

I grew up watching films. Film has been part of my life since I was a child. Growing up in Ethiopia, our best thing to do was to get a film and watch at home. It was the most exciting thing we could ever do. I loved that.

I always loved having the chance to disappear in a story. I always was kind of obsessed with that. Maybe five years ago, I think I had the guts to try and do an acting class. And then that’s how it started.

Can you talk about what the U.N. is doing to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation?

I think the fact that Waris associated herself with the U.N. at that time and talked about the issue, what really happened is not just the U.N. working [to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation] but so many organizations also started [toward the same cause]. There are so many great organizations that are working underground that are really getting breakthroughs. I’ve gone and seen some communities that some organizations have worked on that have gone from 90 percent mutilation rates to nothing. So I think there are a lot of organizations that are doing the right work toward this [cause].

Did you see any dailies [daily footage] while filming “Desert Flower”? And how did you feel the first time you saw the final cut of the movie?

I did not see any rushes or dailies, thanks to [director Sherry Hormann]. [It was] forbidden. It was a blur the first time I watched it. The producer came over and showed it to me in a private screening. I was so nervous, I don’t think I watched it. I think I was just staring. It was really hard for me to watch, because it was really the first time I was seeing myself on screen [in a starring role in a movie].

Have you since “Desert Flower” again since that first time?

Yes. Many times.

 

For more information: “Desert Flower” website

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