During the Sundance Film Festival, director Dania Bdeir presents the world premiere of her new short film : WARSHA.
The Lebanese filmmaker agreed to go behind the scenes of her new production, her struggle and that of the artist Khansa, on her choreographic and photographic work, her artistic choices and the use of HDR LED Walls.
Warsha follows Mohammad, a Syrian migrant working as a crane operator in Beirut. One morning he volunteers to take on one of the tallest and notoriously most dangerous cranes in Lebanon. Away from everyone’s eyes, he is able to live out his secret passion and find freedom.
How was the story of Warsha born and the motivation to tell the life of a Syrian worker who secretly dreams of being an artist, a « diva » ?
I knew I wanted to tell the story of a crane operator because I was going through a phase where I had an infatuation with their daily lives and their perspectives that towered above the city. While I had this idea ruminating in my head, I had the chance to attend a performance by an amazing gender-defying multi talented artist called Khansa.
After the performance, he and I talked for hours and I told him about the film I was cooking up in my head. We started asking ourselves: what if the crane operator is seeking up there in that cabin 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.
This is when we knew that we wanted to work together and that he would play the main role.
To live his secret passion, he volunteers to work in one of the biggest and most dangerous cranes in Lebanon. In his cabin, alone above the city, he can give free rein to his imagination, to his artistic side and he also reveals himself to the spectator. His melancholic face gives way to an unsuspected joy at first. The idea of the crane, where does it come from ?
The reason why I was interested in crane operators is because, 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 floor, I realised that he was praying. It was a beautiful sight and this is when I became infatuated with the mysterious world of crane operators. These little men who operate these gigantic beasts from these 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 is very masculin. It is 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 labels.
I found the dance scene above the city to be a powerful image. It infuses a freedom into the short film and a strength to your subject matter…Apart from being a singer, dancer and performer, Khansa is also a professional aerialist and when I saw that his practice included aerial chains as opposed to the more conventional aerial silks that I was familiar with, I knew that we had to incorporate that into the film. The chain is a material very common in construction sites. It’s metal, rough and robust.
However, when that same chain is used in a dance performance, it’s transformed and exhumes sensuality – but not without effort and pain. I loved that for the character. I figured his first goal would be to seek out the privacy of the cabin, but then the cabin itself wouldn’t be able to contain his passion and so he’d explode beyond it into a fantasy performance. In this performance above the city of Beirut, he would be finally seen and celebrated for who he is.
To play the young Syrian, you chose Khansa who is described as « a multidisciplinary artist who redefines masculinity in the Middle East ». For those who do not know him, can you tell us more about this artist and his struggle ? And the way you worked the dance scene ?
Khansa identified with the character of Mohammad and with the feeling of being different and of growing up in an environment that didn’t understand nor encourage his artistic inclinations. His entire practice was a process in which he had toactivelyseek out a space to be himself, seek out mentors, teaching himself music, dance and art.
Through this journey, he found truth and he found a way to be true to himself : someone who always challenges what we have been conditioned to believe about how a person should be. Growing up in a full house with two brothers and a big family, he knew all too well the feeling of needing a private space to experiment and play freely away from everyone’s eyes.
During the preparation, it was very important to make sure that we were all operating with empathy and trying to experience this same story through different perspectives and not only our own. We organised 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 & emotional strain, the pressures and the marginalisation. He was able to bring this experience as well as a few key conversations into his performance and the psyche of Mohammad’s character.
As for the dance, I was lucky to have worked with Syrian producer Hello Psychaleppo who created the track basing it on the classic Oum Kulthum song « The Ruins ». Khansa and I spoke a lot about what the story of the dance is, what it should express and what it means to Mohammad. After that, Khansa created the choreography and was coached by aerial and circus artist Manuelle Haeringer in Marseille.
Warsha used the HDR LED wall technology « Unreal Engines » as it seems to me, just like The Mandalorian. I imagine that the crane scenes were shot behind these walls. Why did you choose to use this technology ?
At first, I wanted to shoot everything on location in the cabin and I wanted us to figure out a way to do the performance safely. All it took was me going up there in 2018 in order to shoot the teaser for the film, for me to get convinced that there is no way that can ever happen. I’m someone who’s very comfortable with heights and I even felt dizzy as I climbed the crane ladder. There was no way that those scenes could be shot with a crew, even if limited, in such dangerous circumstances. So my producer Coralie met the wonderful VFX company LA PLANÈTE ROUGE and together, we applied to and thankfully received a grant from Region Sud which allowed us to shoot at Province Studios in Martigues, France.
The only thing we shot in Lebanon was Mohammad climbing the crane ladder. After that, everything inside the cabin and everything related to the aerial chain performance was shot at La Planète Rouge’s state of the art THE NEXT STAGE STUDIOS which was newly decked out with Unreal engine LED technology which is, in my opinion, the future of filmmaking. This is the same technology used in Marvel Films such as The Mandalorian and I was so incredibly happy for the opportunity to have this experience. When I first realised that I wasn’t going to shoot on location, I was worried about having to shoot and direct Khansa in a green screen studio but what this technology does is it allows us to capture 360 drone images from Lebanon and input them into the 280 degrees curved LED walls. Instead of having to imagine or tell Khansa to imagine that he’s seeing Beirut from above, we could all see the Mediterranean shimmering and truly feel the height of Beirut right there in the studio in France. The cinematographer and I were able to frame the character while seeing the background and it freed us up to behave as if we were shooting on location but without any of the danger. It was truly amazing and it looks so real.
The photography in Warsha, especially on the dance, at sunset, is absolutely sublime. Can you tell us about your artistic choices on this sequence ?
Shadi Chaaban (director of photography) and I worked a lot with color on this film. The directorial choice was that the world of Mohammad on the ground (the apartment, bathroom, van and construction site) would be of a certain drab palette. When Mohammad is among the workers, there’s a homogenous color to the film emphasizing how Mohammad is just one worker among others rather than an individual.
When his dream sequence begins, we transition into more stark and vivid explosive colors that reflect how he feels inside and how he’d like to be. It was important for us to tell our story with color and have it progressively evolve throughout the film in conjunction with Mohammad’s inner journey.
Warsha will soon be screened in the Sundance world premiere. Are you anxious ?
Getting into Sundance is a huge honor. I’ve always loved and respected this festival and dreamt of showing a film there just like most directors around the world. It’s a festival that’s known to be extremely competitive (the acceptance rate for a short film is less than 1%) and has a very strong curation as well as an eye for uncovering new up and coming filmmakers. Sundance in 2019 had an attendance of 120,000 people and with their new hybrid model, they even reached 600,000 people in 2021. That’s an immense exposure and I’m humbled and excited to share my work with such a large number of people.
I’m not anxious at all. I’m excited but also very saddened that this year, the festival will be 100% virtual which means I won’t have the chance to go to Park City nor to feel the energy of the audiences in real life. I really hope that audiences enjoy the film and that there’s a way for me to know some of their feedback and impressions and mostly I hope that we can go back to a real world with physical interactions and in-person festivals.
With fragility and melancholy, the film opens on the sweet face of a young Syrian migrant surrounded by men and confronted with the brutal world of construction. A contrast that the director imposes on us from the outset, without caution, so that the viewer is placed in the discomfort felt by the character of Mohammad.
In this macho environment, becoming a diva is a chimerical ascension, a fight lost in advance. However, it is in this very masculine universe that he will reveal himself. While he accepts a mission in the highest crane of Lebanon, Mohammad presents himself to us as he really is : an artist, a diva. A moment suspended in precious time, where the photography, warm and luminous, accompanies the joy that Mohammad has to be able to express himself freely above the city. An image like a cry from the heart, where he reveals to the world his difference and without fear.
WARSHA is a hymn to diversity, an ode to artists freed from constraints, judgments and criticism. Dania Bdeir also denounces a system and a dominant thought, which eats away at men and their freedom to be. A thrilling short film about the difficulties of emancipation in an archaic country where differences, dreams and desires are proscribed.
Thanks to the London Flair agency for this great opportunity and to the director Dania Bdeir for her complete and fascinating answers.
Sundance 2022 – Tickets : https://festival.sundance.org/tickets/