Interview with Dania Bdeir, director of Warsha
Monday 7 February 2022, by
A crane operator working in a construction site in Beirut, finds his freedom when he is away from everyone’s eyes.
How did you come up with the character? Is he based on someone you know?
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. I was afraid thinking the man was going to jump. It all looked so dangerous and unsafe. As he kneeled down and put his forehead to the floor, I realized 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 masculine. 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. Soon after that, I had the chance to attend a performance by an amazing gender-bending multi-talented artist called Khansa. After the performance, we talked for hours, and I told him about Warsha. We started asking ourselves: what if the crane operator is 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. Khansa and I spent a lot of time building the character of Mohammad. He poured a lot of himself in 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. 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. Khansa entered this male dominated world and felt the physical and emotional strain, the pressures and the marginalization. He was able to bring this experience into the psyche of Mohammad’s character. This invaluable experience brought a very important layer into his performance, which, even though included no dialogue, had to portray so much through eyes and body language.
How did you cast the actor? Can you tell us a bit about him? Is he a dancer or an acrobat?
There was no casting. I knew it was going to be Khansa. Apart from singing and belly dancing, he’s also a professional aerialist who often works with chains. This came up in our first conversation and it felt so perfect to include that in the film. Chains are a harsh material reminiscent of the world of construction but when used for aerial arts, dancers use the pain of the material on their skin and turn it into a beautiful and sensual dance. We knew early on that once our protagonist finally reaches the cabin, he’d have to break out of its constraints and transform into the vision he wants to be performing while hanging off the tip of the crane for the entire world to see and celebrate.
How did you shoot the scenes on the crane?
My producer Coralie met the wonderful VFX company La Planète Rouge and together with them, we applied to and thankfully received a grant from Region Sud which allowed us to shoot at Provence Studios in Martigues. 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 I wasn’t going to shoot on location, I worried about having to shoot and direct Khansa in a green screen studio but this technology allowed 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 amazing and it looks so real.
This is your second film selected at the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival. What did you get out of the selection of In White last time? Any key moment you remember?
Having the world premiere of my thesis film In White at Clermont in 2017 is one of the best and most special experiences of my life. It’s a festival that truly appreciates and celebrates the art of the short film and there’s so much respect for the films and the filmmakers. It’s truly a cinephile’s and a filmmaker’s festival. The thing I’ll never forget is seeing people queuing around the block to watch my short and the feeling of seeing it play on the huge screen. Standing there on stage and looking out at all those people is a memory that gives me goosebumps and I’m so excited to experience it again with Warsha. This moment makes all the trouble and challenges of making a short film worth it. It’s very emotional.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
I loved so many short films at Clermont that I ended up asking all my new director friends for links so I can watch the films again after I leave and share them with my family and friends. I remember an Iranian film called Alan (Mostafa Gandomkar), Red Apples (George Sikharulidze), Disco Obu (Anand Kishore), Etage X (Francy Fabriz), Pussy (Renata Gasiorowska)…
What’s your definition of a good film?
For me, a good film is one that makes me feel something and ideally one that keeps me thinking about it long after I’m done watching it. I’m someone who needs to be engaged with the characters. When all aspects of filmmaking (cinematography, sound, acting, art direction) join forces in order to incite emotion in a viewer, it’s a very profound and visceral experience.