The World's First Global Film Festival


Directed by: Dania Bdair

Cast: Khansa

Country: France & Lebanon

Time: 15:12

Synopsis: A Beirut construction worker volunteers for the most dangerous job on the site. Away from everyone's eyes, a secret passion takes flight.

Warsha could be described as edgy. What was the inspiration for the film? And why Beirut?

It all started in 2017. I was sitting on my apartment 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 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 realized that he was praying. It was a beautiful sight and the image stuck in my head. This is when I became infatuated with the mysterious world of crane operators. These men operate gigantic beasts from within these tiny cabins where they can see the world and no one can see them. The more time I spent time at 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.

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

The idea was born in Beirut and reflects a reality in Beirut. The story is about the difficulty yet importance of breaking out of gender norms in a patriarchal country like Lebanon. It is told through the perspective of migrant workers in Lebanon who are in a very specific plight in which they try to be as invisible as possible. Finally, the film captures the emotion of wanting to escape a claustrophobic situation in order to just breathe as well as that of any person living in Lebanon in the current socio-political and economic climate.

Why were you drawn to making a film about a crane operator specifically?

After my curiosity led me to the world of crane operators, I started visiting construction sites and interviewing various people for research purposes. Every time, I was overwhelmed by three palpable aspects: The space is extremely masculine. It is very loud. And the construction workers were all underpaid and often undocumented migrant 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 social or economic hierarchy.

Tell us about Khansa and how you met him.

Khansa is a music producer, a songwriter, a dancer, a singer and an all-encompassing multi-talented artist who's always looking to learn new mediums, skills and avenues to redefine masculinity in the Middle East. I cannot describe what a transcendental experience it is to see him performing live. I really think there's no one in the world like him. Apart from belly dancing, Khansa's most famous skill is that he's 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.

Khansa and I spent a lot of time building the character of Mohammad together. 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. Khansa's entire career was a process in which he had to actively seek out a space to be himself, seek out mentors, and teach himself music, dance and art. Through this journey, Khansa found a way to be true to himself: someone who always challenges anything that we have been conditioned to enforce. 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. Furthermore, 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 arranged 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 marginalization. He was able to bring this experience as well as a few key conversations he had into his performance and the psyche of Mohammad's character. This invaluable experience brought a very important additional layer into Khansa's performance because even though he had no dialogue, he had to portray so much with his eyes and body language.

Some of the scenes in Warsha might induce vertigo in viewers. Shooting inside a crane cabin seems inherently dangerous. In the end, you used an HDR LED Wall and Unreal Engine technologies. Tell us about the initial difficulties and the solution.

For the cabin and crane shots, I initially 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 myself in 2018 in order to shoot the teaser for the film. I 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 and high circumstances. The solution developed when my producer Coralie met the wonderful VFX company LA PLANÈTE ROUGE and together, we applied to and thankfully received a grant from Region Sud that allowed us to shoot in their virtual production studio 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 Planete Rouge's state of the art THE NEXT STAGE STUDIOS using HDR LED Wall and Unreal Engine technologies which is the future of filmmaking, in my opinion This is the same technology used in Marvel Films such as The Mandalorian. I am so incredibly happy for the opportunity to have this experience. When I first realized 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 allowed us to capture 360-degree drone images from Lebanon and input them onto the 280-degree, curved LED walls. Instead of having to 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.

You have a real knack for character development in a format that's inherently brief. What methods or short cuts do you use to bring a character to life quickly?

I don't know if there are shortcuts per se. I guess the fact that it took us 4-5 years to bring this film to life just meant that I had a lot of time to focus on and perfect the script. I never wanted Warsha to be an epic dramatic story where Mohammad had a huge character arc. I always wanted the story to be rooted in reality. I wrote many drafts: some where nothing happened and it was just the audience accompanying Mohammad on his daily ritual in that crane cabin and some that had a lot more drama, dialogue, important supporting characters and his big secret revealed. None of them felt quite right. When I got into Berlinale Talent's short film station, it was really the lab that helped me find the sweet spot of the story: it was going to be Mohammad's first time volunteering to take over this beast of a crane. This was all I needed to create dramatic tension in an intimate way.

Also, I love visual story-telling. I'll never forget an example director Todd Solondz gave us when he taught us at NYU. Solondz said you can have a prisoner banging on the bars and screaming “I'm hungry. I'm hungry” or you can have a silent scene of a prisoner sitting on the floor. A rat runs by and the prisoner leaps over, grabs it, bites off a piece and starts chewing with relief. Which scene will get stuck in your mind more?

The answer is clear and this is why, I always try to think of ways that we can feel viscerally what the character is going through instead of just hearing him say it. Sound design also is an incredibly important medium that I love working with because I consider it a way to sneak up on audiences without them realizing it.