The opening scene of Dania Bdeir’s new short film “Warsha” transports audiences to a singular moment in Lebanon’s history. It’s the 2010s, and Beirut is getting a facelift. Luxury real estate developers compete for contracts while a class of undocumented Syrian workers step in to provide the labor. Life in the city is chaotic and demanding but still possible.
Among the racket of honking cars and racial slurs, we meet Mohammad (played by Mohamad al-Khansa), a Syrian migrant worker navigating a life between the construction site where he works and the cramped quarters where he lives. When he learns of the mysterious disappearance of the man tasked with operating the city’s tallest and most notoriously dangerous crane, he volunteers to take his place. By all accounts, the decision is illogical, reckless. But equal to Mohammad’s fear is his longing for something beyond the confines of his daily life, something that may await him at the top of the crane, if he can make it there.
“Warsha,” which was awarded the Sundance Jury Prize for International Short Film last month, is a striking exploration of the distance between spaces both real and imagined — the street and the crane cabin, public life and the internal world, reality and imagination. From the window of the crane, Beirut appears as an arrestingly beautiful city by the sea. But a viewer familiar with Lebanon is painfully aware of what lies below: a nation in turmoil, economic collapse, the stench of old garbage wafting through the streets, a people who have been brutally dispossessed, a world of endemic corruption and deep structural inequality. The film’s sweeping drone footage provokes a sense of vertigo as we watch Mohammad climb the long ladder up to the crane cabin, each step expanding the distance between himself and the world he is leaving behind.
Bdeir, who was raised in Lebanon by Syrian parents, got the idea for the film in 2017 when she saw a man praying on top of a crane in Beirut. After the incident, she developed a profound interest in crane operators, a group of people “who see the world, but no one sees them.” “Warsha” belongs to a growing class of Lebanese films exploring the experiences of communities on the nation’s peripheries, namely migrant workers and refugees. The most renowned film in this category is Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated 2018 drama “Capernaum,” which depicts a young Syrian refugee and an Ethiopian mother trying to survive in the slums of Beirut.
Watching a film like “Warsha” in 2022 is a disorienting experience. Since the onset of Lebanon’s financial crisis and the subsequent port explosion that destroyed vast swaths of Beirut, the rigid social hierarchies that once defined the structure of Lebanese society have lost much of their former meaning. As such, Mohammad comes to represent not only the Syrian migrant worker in Lebanon but an experience much broader in scope, one that reveals the elaborate contours of human desire and grapples with the personal stakes of self-liberation.
New Lines sat down for an interview with Dania Bdeir, the movie’s writer and director.
LY: Could you tell me about the idea behind the film. Where did it come from?
DB: It was the summer of 2017, and I was in Beirut. I was writing on the balcony, and I looked up and saw a man standing on top of a crane cabin. At first I was really scared. I thought he was gonna jump, but then I realized as he kneeled down and put his forehead to the ground that he was praying. It was just a really beautiful sight that got stuck in my head, this man praying on a crane at sunset, and it started an infatuation of mine — I became really interested in crane operators. I realized that, you know, we always see cranes around us, but we never really think about the person inhabiting that tiny space, operating this giant machinery, this person who can see the world yet nobody can see him.
I started visiting construction sites, and there were three very palpable things that I always felt on the ground. They were extremely masculine spaces, I was always the only woman there. They were extremely loud spaces, you can hardly hear yourself think, and you can’t have your own thoughts or dreams, because it’s just that loud and rhythmic and intense. And third of all, because it’s Lebanon, the workers tend to be Syrian and undocumented, so there was a very specific, clear social hierarchy between the workers and the engineers. The workers tend to want to be as invisible as possible, operating together as a collective. No one really stands out much. So I became really interested in this idea that the crane operator, even though he arrives in the morning with the rest of the workers, he’s the only one who kind of gets to skip all that. He gets on his ladder, and he climbs up and leaves all of that behind. He leaves behind the noise of masculinity, the social hierarchy, and he just gets to go up to his own bubble up there.
LY: When your protagonist finally gets up to the crane cabin, the film takes a surprising turn. We witness Mohammad experience this moment of intense self expression through gender exploration. Why did you choose to introduce that element in the film?
DB: It so happened that around that time [of writing], there was a new song out by an artist called Khansa. I loved the music video, and when he had a live performance, I went to watch him and I was blown away. He was transcendental. He was kind of blurring the lines of gender seamlessly — he’s masculine, he’s feminine, he’s belly dancing, he’s Sufi dancing, he’s singing. … It was just kind of a beautiful moment where reality was suspended and you kind of forget what you’re watching, you’re not looking for gender, just beauty and art. So me and him started talking after the show and we connected a lot. I talked to him about this film I had in mind and then we started thinking, “What if what this crane operator is trying to explore up there is a space to express or unleash something inside of him that he can’t really express in his daily life.”
LY: Towards the end of the film, there is a scene inspired by the man you saw from your balcony in Beirut years ago. As I watched Mohammad pray on top of the crane, I couldn’t help but think about how queerness is often put in tension with Islam. Can you talk about the decision to include the prayer scene right after Mohammad’s moment of gender exploration? Were you trying to complicate our understanding of something?
DB: The whole reason for wanting to spend time with the protagonist is [the opportunity] to stop and look at a character who is generally overlooked. Instead of slapping them with things that are as obvious as nationality or job or social class, what if we stopped and truly looked at that person. What is a human if not his deepest desires, what he thinks about when he puts his head to the pillow, what he fantasizes about? What would he be doing if life didn’t put him there? It also felt like, you know, if I want to be authentic to the character, traditionally Syrian workers in Lebanon are traditionally Muslim. … It’s a very cultural thing — to wake up, to pray, and then later in the day, to pray. The same way that someone can be Syrian and a construction worker and someone who loves dancing and singing, there’s no reason that person cannot also be a devout Muslim. People are layers of things. I just don’t like anything to stay within a very categorical or binary situation. People are millions of shades of gray.
LY: The idea for a film like this is really ambitious. You needed a construction site and a way of filming in a cramped space high up in the air. From a financial and logistical perspective, how did you make it happen?
DB: I mean there’s no recipe for sure. I happened to receive this email from the film festival where I had premiered my [master’s] thesis short, saying that there’s this event in France where you can pitch your short films and find producers. So I took that as an opportunity to set a deadline for myself like, okay, I’m going to write a script. So I did, and they happened to take it. I went and met a bunch of French producers, and I ended up meeting my producer there. Her name is Coralie Dias. She was super passionate about the story. It was her first short, she had never heard of Lebanon, and she suddenly found herself working on the most complicated short in the most complicated country ever. But she was so passionate and hardworking that I owe a lot of it to her. We got rejected from most of the grants in the Arab world, but we got a lot of grants in France.
LY: To capture the scenes inside the crane cabin, you filmed inside of a state-of-the-art virtual production studio, a kind of setup typically reserved for high-budget, action-packed films like the Marvel movies. Can you talk about the decision to film there rather than on an actual construction site?
DB: At first, I first wanted to shoot everything in real life, because that’s all I knew as director, you know, shooting on location. I wanted authenticity and all that stuff. But when we went to shoot the teaser, my camera operator was about to go up the ladder and then he just kind of froze and said, “You know what? I have kids. I’m not gonna do this.” He gave me the camera. And so I had to put the camera in my backpack and get on the ladder myself. And even though I’m someone who’s quite comfortable with heights, when I grabbed onto the ladder this vertigo came over me. I just felt dizzy and I had to really stop myself and focus. And then as I climbed it was very clear to me how vulnerable I was and how unprotected I was on this ladder. It’s just this metal that creaks as you climb. The wind gets stronger. It’s really not very comfortable. And then I got up to the cabin and I realized how tiny and tight it was in there. So that’s the day I called my producer and said, “Okay, you’re right. I’m convinced there’s no way we can shoot this on location. We have to start thinking of another solution.”
LY: I’m curious to hear about your journey as a filmmaker. When did you decide that you want to work in film and who were some of your inspirations?
DB: I grew up the youngest of four girls, and there’s quite a big age difference. So when I was younger, I didn’t really have a lot of people to play with. I would watch a lot of TV. I was that person watching hours on end. And it was all, of course, American TV and I was learning it by heart. And then when I was about 16 my father, may he rest in peace, he gave me a video camera. It was quite an expensive video camera for a 16-year-old. It was new at the time and shot on mini-DV, like a really good one. I remember my mom telling him, “Why would you give her something expensive? She’s gonna break it.” I guess he saw something in me. He felt like I might be interested in that. And I just became the person filming everything. When I was in my final year [of college] I went to New York to visit my sister and I took the opportunity to visit NYU’s campus, and I was hooked. The second I entered that campus and I saw the types of classes they were doing, I was like this is exactly what I need to be doing. So I immediately went back to Lebanon and I applied to NYU and pretty much the second I graduated from graphic design school I was on a plane to start my master’s in writing and directing [film].
LY: As I watched “Warsha,” I noticed a stark contrast between Beirut at street level and Beirut from the sky. At street level, the van of Syrian construction workers gets cursed out and, as we know, garbage piles up and exhausted crowds protest a corrupt regime. From the distance of the drone camera, however, Beirut looks very beautiful. There’s this veneer of tranquility from such a distance. What were you trying to achieve with that contrast?
DB: That contrast between the ground and the world up there was the motivation [for] why this man, who is clearly afraid, goes up into this crane that’s notorious and dangerous. What is it? What is it that you need up there? [The contrast] creates what he needs, the opportunity to breathe and to be in that space that is away from the chaos, away from the racism, away from the cacophony, the dirt, the sound.
I don’t know, I think it must be related to my own feelings. I would always look up. I would always look up at the clouds. I would feel sometimes like the city can be beautiful, but also it can be overbearing, it can be claustrophobic. It’s both of these things and sometimes when you see it from above, it’s actually beautiful. And when you’re right there in it, it’s also beautiful but it’s a chaotic beauty. I think the Arab world in general has a bit of that where you can be right there in it and you can love it but sometimes it can also be too much, too many eyes and opinions — sometimes you just want to break out of all of that and have nothing around you. No eyes, no walls, no rules, no borders. That, I think, is the main difference between down there and up here.
LY: After the Arab Spring, we saw many filmmakers grappling with the idea of freedom very directly. We saw films of people struggling against violent oppressors. There was a lot of blood in those films. They were loud, reckoning with and documenting a moment. But what we’re seeing now, I’ve noticed, are quieter, more cerebral films portraying the dystopian aftermath of those revolutionary years. Do you identify at all with that second wave of post-revolution films?
DB: Yeah, I mean, I hadn’t thought about it, but you make a very good point. It’s interesting. I’m definitely interested in the idea of freedom. It’s also one of the things that I noticed in retrospect, because my [master’s] thesis film was about a young Lebanese girl who lives in New York and is back in Beirut for her father’s funeral. So she’s back to a very traditional Muslim [society] and, you know, there’s Quran all the time, everyone wears black, there’s a very strict rulebook of exactly what you should do and she comes back with these ideas of like, “I want to wear white, I want to play Sinatra, which was dad’s favorite,” and the mother is shutting it down right away, like “No, that’s not how we do things, you’ve become so American.”
I think my own move to New York made me realize a lot of things. When you’re away from a home that is so small and full of rules and eyes and judgments, you can really get to know yourself. That’s when you can really put everything into question and experiment and express [yourself]. I think a lot of magic comes out when you allow yourself all that. Both of those films that I’ve done, “In White” and “Warsha,” like to exist in that space. But you’re definitely right that there’s a trend [in Arab cinema] like that, and I wonder if it’s because Arabs have gotten a bit disappointed at the idea of actually making change, all of us together as a collective actually overruling an oppressor. Maybe we realized after a failed Arab Spring that that’s not as doable, so maybe we’re looking now at individual victories, individual changes. At least [we can] work on freeing ourselves, because that other monster is too big, too strong.
LY: There’s something that occurs to me as I watch the film now, in 2022, after possibly the worst year in Lebanon’s history. I’m wondering what happens to Mohammad today, now that the construction sector has collapsed along with the economy, now that even the Lebanese are trying to flee Lebanon. How do you contextualize this film in Lebanon’s current and seemingly endless crisis?
DB: Yeah, it’s definitely a good point. I started this film in 2017. When I was sitting on the balcony writing and saw the man on the crane, there were a billion other cranes around the city. It was a moment when Beirut was obsessed with trying to reclaim its former glory and rebuilding luxury buildings. But by 2021 when we were shooting the film, we could not find a single active construction site. The construction site where we ended up shooting was abandoned after the [port] explosion because there was so much damage they couldn’t afford to fix anything anymore. We were going to give up on this film too at that point. The explosion had blasted through the production office and through my editor’s house. But two months passed, and we kind of came up from the rubble, licked our wounds, looked at each other and asked, “Are we still interested in this?” And we decided that yes, we were.
So it’s hard to contextualize this film, but I feel the context is the emotion of feeling oppressed or feeling claustrophobic and wanting that space to breathe again, or to have joy again. That’s kind of the context I’m going for, that I think is more relatable to the people in Lebanon today.
“Warsha” will be available for online streaming during the SXSW film festival on March 12.