Arab queer film finds success: an interview with the director of Lebanon’s award-winning “Warsha”

Arab queer film finds success: an interview with the director of Lebanon’s award-winning “Warsha”


As the world marks LGBT History Month, film director of Lebanese and Syrian origin Dania Bdeir is making her mark as a contributor to queer history, with her award-winning short film, “Warsha”. “Warsha” follows Mohammed, a Syrian migrant working as a crane operator in Beirut. One morning he volunteers to operate one of the tallest and most dangerous cranes in Lebanon. Away from everyone’s eyes, he is able to live out his secret passion and find freedom.

In light of her short film’s victory at the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States, Dania Bdeir sat down (virtually) with Politika News to discuss why “Warsha” is a monumental moment for Arab queer art.

It is rare that we see a male migrant crane operator as a protagonist in a film. What was your inspiration for “Warsha”?

It all started when, in 2017, I was sitting on my balcony in Lebanon overlooking all of Beirut and I saw a man standing on top of one of the tallest construction cranes. At first I was afraid thinking the man was going to jump. It all looked so dangerous and unsafe. Then, as he kneeled down and put his forehead to the ground, I realised that he was praying.

It was a beautiful sight that got stuck in my head. This is when I became infatuated with the mysterious world of crane operators. These men who operate these gigantic beasts from tiny cabins where they can see the world and no one can see them.

The more I spent time in construction sites speaking to engineers and workers, the more I was convinced that I wanted to make a film where the protagonist was a crane operator. Throughout my visits, I was overwhelmed with three main palpable aspects: that space was very masculine, it was very loud, and the construction workers were all underpaid and often undocumented Syrians.

I was drawn to the idea that the crane operator, out of all these workers, was the only one who gets the chance to escape these three aspects when he climbs the dangerous ladder up towards the sky. Up there, there’s no noise, no judging eyes, no one to label him.

Khansa and I spent a lot of time building the character of Mohammad together. He poured a lot of himself into Mohammad by drawing memories from his own childhood, insecurities, dreams, passions and especially the experience of craving the private space to experiment and unleash a desire burning deep within.

Soon after that, I had the chance to attend a performance by an amazing gender bending multi-talented artist called Khansa. After the performance, he and I talked for hours and I told him about Warsha. We started asking ourselves: what if the crane operator were seeking the space and the privacy to break out of gender norms and express himself truly, in a way that he can’t in his daily life?

We also drew a lot from the experiences of Syrian workers. We organized for Khansa to spend two days working in a construction site where nobody knew that he was an actor and where he received no special treatment. Khansa entered the male dominated world of Syrian workers and felt the physical and emotional strain, the pressures and the marginalisation. He was able to bring this experience into the psyche of Mohammad’s character. This invaluable experience brought a very important additional layer into his performance, which, even though it included no dialogue, had to portray so much through eyes and body language.

Non-binary gender in the SWANA region. How big a taboo is this?

The Arab world is traditionally very binary. There’s a general sense that there should be strict definitions of how people should act, what is acceptable, what isn’t, and a fear of the grey areas. This is something that the new and younger generations are trying to resist. Personally, I believe that it’s better for us as a society to focus on individual happiness which will lead to a collective happiness, rather than insist on upholding rules that could oppress and do more damage than good. 

You employed Syrian migrant workers to play these respective roles in the film. What did you learn about their experiences when working with them?

The two supporting roles were played by Syrian actors Kamel Saleh and Hassan Aqqoul. After I briefed them on the general plot points, they were the ones who wrote their own lines of dialogue and improvised in a way that felt true to the characters. The rest of the background actors and extras were actual Syrian construction workers.

Working with them, in addition to the research that we did during the preparation period, informed a lot of the decisions taken in regards to the story and world we were creating. It was very important for us to achieve authenticity and to represent that environment of construction, their home life and their commute realistically. 

By getting to know some of them, I learned that the appreciation of music, art and a dream of celebrity was actually quite common. I also learned that they (at least the men that I met) take great pride in the work that they do and in the fact that they build people’s homes with their own hands.

Finally, the fact that they were far away from their families meant that they had to be each other’s family, so there was a beautiful sense of camaraderie and brotherhood among them and they were quite happy that a film was shining a light on their world. 

Dania Bdeir is the director of Warsha

There is a lot of violence imposed on both refugees and queer people. It is difficult to imagine the experience, then, of a queer refugee or migrant worker in the SWANA region. Did you learn anything about their experience while making the film?

In 2018, we shot a teaser for the film in order to raise funds. When the camera operator changed his mind and didn’t want to climb up the ladder, I had to do it myself in order to get the shots I needed inside the cabin. Going up that ladder was an experience I won’t forget. Even though I’m comfortable with heights, the second my hand grabbed the metal steps, I got dizzy. As I proceeded to go up, I felt very vulnerable and unprotected.

When I arrived at the cabin, I was taken aback by how tight the space was. The crane operator’s chair was broken and the back kept falling off unless he held it up with a metal rod. When I asked him why he didn’t ask the boss to fix it for him, he answered that he did and that the response was he could fix it if he paid for it himself. Construction workers at the time had a day rate of $10-$20. Needless to say, he couldn’t afford such an expense, so had to just adapt and live with it. 

Migrant workers often live in poor conditions, have to go about their day with their heads down, taking as little space as possible and are easily replaceable in the workforce without legal protections or insurance. 

This is quite a thorny issue, but at the core of it, I think the problems stem from deficient and unenforced labour laws. We have a political and legal setup in Lebanon that makes it far too easy for employers to utilise and under-provide for undocumented workers, and far too expensive for them to go through the proper legal channels to employ non-Lebanese workers. The businesses and employers are then stuck in an endless cycle of exploitative behaviour. We need fair labour laws that don’t impose undue burden on businesses who cannot survive without migrant workers and that protect employee rights.

Filming scenes in Beirut seems an extraordinary achievement given the ongoing crisis in Lebanon. What challenges did you face during the filmmaking process, and how did you overcome them?

Lebanon is going through extremely tough times. I started working on the film in 2017 when there was a plethora of luxury buildings being built in downtown Beirut and everywhere you looked, you could see cranes and migrant construction workers.

These past four years have been extremely eventful for the world and even more so for Lebanon. By the time I was shooting the film in 2021, there were very few functioning construction sites left. The dollar crisis made it very difficult to source material and most sites were abandoned.

Furthermore, the explosion in August 2020 blasted through the city and affected construction sites who couldn’t afford to fix the damage as well as a lot of the crew members’ and production teams’ houses and offices. It was really a dark time in which we had considered giving up on the film. A few months later, we saw ourselves rising from the rubble. When we saw that our fire to tell this story was still burning, we picked up and kept going. 

I could not be more grateful to our co-producer Pierre Sarraf (founder of Né a Beyrouth) and every single member of the Lebanese crew that he brought on. These people were wounded but driven and even if it was a logistical nightmare to plan a shoot in uncertain times like those, they made it feel seamless.

For me, I could focus on the creative and they solved every problem that came our way without me even feeling anything. They are heroes. Each and every one of them and I am so inspired by their strength and talent. 

Finally, as an artist with roots in Lebanon, do you have hope for your homeland’s queer community?

It is hard to have hope for my homeland these days to be honest. 

There have been amazing LGBT activists and organisations over the past 15 years who, through sustained and brave work, have been able to get some victories and achieve some breakthroughs that are noteworthy from a legal standpoint. However, the situation of a country doesn’t always go in a single direction.

There are many times where we regress instead of progress. For example in 2018, Helem stated that there had been an increase in the number of arrests [of queer people]. Furthermore, the Lebanon’s queer communities have few safe spaces left and have been among the hardest hit by the combined impacts of the 2020 Beirut blast, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing economic crisis. 

This combination of crises has destroyed entire neighbourhoods where queer people had found refuge over the last decade and a lot of queer people (especially from the trans community) are finding it difficult to get employed and make ends meet in today’s economic climate. 

So as Lebanon continues to suffer, the migrant and queer community suffer the most. My hope is that we manage to vote out the corrupt ruling class, hold them accountable for the damage they’ve done to an entire country and people, and replace them with qualified, honest and hardworking people so that the country can begin its process of healing.

Politika News would like to thank Dania Bdeir for her time. Readers can follow Warsha‘s progress on Instagram and Meta. Readers can watch the film’s trailer here.

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