Dania Bdeir’s Oscar-shortlisted Lebanese film Warsha: a story of migration and masculinity

Award-winning short starring Arab pop artist Khansa had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival

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When writer and director Dania Bdeir was 16, her father gave her a video camera. It was a defining moment for Bdeir, who had aspirations to be an actress before finding herself more creatively challenged behind the lens.

Soon after, Bdeir started filming everything and taught herself to edit, beginning her professional journey in creative storytelling.

It was only towards the end of her father’s life, however, that Bdeir found out that he, like her, was a creative too. Her father was a photographer in his university days in San Francisco, living a creative freedom that was cut short after he graduated and returned home to Lebanon and worked in the family export and import business.

It’s an irony not lost on Bdeir, whose film, Warsha, is one of 15 short films shortlisted nominated for the 95th Academy Awards.

Warsha is an intense, beautifully shot film that explores masculinity and societal expectations through the perspective of a Syrian migrant working as crane operator in Beirut.

Profound, layered and moving, Warsha takes audiences on a masterfully plotted journey, with nuanced takes on its central theme ― freedom.

The story follows Mohammad, who, while living with other Syrian migrants working on a construction site, volunteers for the extremely dangerous job of crane operator. As he climbs up to his new position, away from the eyes of his peers and the sounds of the city, he is, for a few moments, able to live as an unchained and free version of himself.

The seed of the story came to Bdeir when, in 2017, she saw from her apartment balcony overlooking Beirut, a man standing on the top of the cabin of the tallest construction crane, praying. The sight left an indelible mark on her and unleashed an obsession with crane operators and their experiences.

“I had this first scene that was stuck in my head, this idea of this man climbing a ladder,” Bdeir tells The National.

“Progressively the sounds of the city disappear and he reaches this place, this bubble and cocoon of silence and calm overlooking the whole city where he can see the world but nobody can see him.”

Warsha is an unexpected and intimate character portrait that flawlessly fuses many opposing elements. The intense sound of the city with music, small and open spaces, fear and liberty, dull shadows and overpowering light and colour. From its aesthetics, themes and references, Bdeir has woven a story of breathtaking scope and layers in a short amount of time.

Before writing the script for Warsha, Bdeir spent time on construction sites. She observed and researched how they operated, how the construction workers lived and interacted with one another and the outside world.

It was a world dominated by the sounds of machinery and an intense, hyper-masculine energy.

“I noticed in Lebanon, that [construction[ workers were almost always undocumented, underpaid Syrian workers,” she says.

“So they tended to try and move as a group and call the least attention to themselves as possible.”

Due to the war in Syria, Lebanon has experienced an influx of refugees over the years. Their presence has been blamed for causing a strain on the weak economic infrastructure of the country, resulting in a tense relationship between Syrian construction workers and the Lebanese people, Bdeir says.

This palpable frustration, fear and a brimming fury throughout the city is translated into the film in small and powerful details.

Despite not having a fully fleshed-out story, Bdeir had “feelings and sensations and emotions” that she wanted to explore.

The story started to take form when she saw the work of Khansa, a contemporary Arab pop singer, dancer and actor.

His single and music video Khayif was going viral and explored ideas around conforming to society's expectation of masculinity and stifling creative freedom. Bdeir then saw him performing live, describing it as “beyond singing, beyond dancing” and “a shared experience of the audience”.

Upon approaching Khansa with the idea of collaborating on the film, Bdeir quickly knew that he would play her main character, Mohammad.

Khansa’s silent performance in the film is incredibly personal and poignant. Every gesture, movement and expression is rooted in reality but feels like choreographed storytelling gestures.

“It's not just a director who's casting an actor,” Khansa says of his collaboration with Bdeir.

“It's a storyteller working with an artist to create that universe where this storyteller bridges between the character they want to bring to life, and the artist who finds himself within this character.”

For his part, Khansa immersed himself in research to understand the world Mohammad comes from. As a performing artist who plays with ideas of masculinity and femininity in his music and dance, Khansa initially felt well versed in the space his character occupied.

“The character was challenging, because I have to be myself but in a parallel world,” he says. “I started by just watching, observing my movement, observing other people's movement, watching how different people behave.”

Khansa committed to his research by working on a construction site in Beirut. He walked on to it, not as an artist doing research but as a completely committed worker.

“I met Syrian construction site workers, I lived with them practically,” he says.

“I experienced all the different chores they do. I worked with them. I was also focusing on the concept of identity and privacy and something that everybody relates to through movement, because dance is a universal language.”

Since Warsha’s release at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20 last year, it has been screened at more than 200 festivals in more than 60 countries and has won more than 90 awards. These include the Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction at Sundance, the Best Fiction award at Tampere Film Festival in Finland and the Jury Prize of the Festival at the Regard Festival international du court metrage au Saguenay in Canada.

“It's been very interesting to go to different countries around the world and see what are the things that are touching people on a deep level,” Bdeir says.

“My Mena premiere was in Saudi Arabia and I think it struck a very specific chord there that was very beautiful to see.”

The critical success of Warsha on the film festival circuit reveals that Bdeir’s work and her collaboration with Khansa has touched viewers across cultures and languages, communicating something universal.

“What I was trying to get to [with the script] is make it very specific and very unique,” Bdeir says.

“This is the experience of a migrant worker in Lebanon at this time, with the political and social and economic climate which would make it feel rooted in the space. But at the same time going back to what is the emotional story, which is what connected people and made it universal.”

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