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Inspiration for Bdeir's 'Warsha' came from above — a crane operator in Beirut

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

One way to see a city's beauty away from its flaws is from above, and that's what Lebanese filmmaker Dania Bdeir manages to do in her short film "Warsha." It's about a crane operator in Beirut. Bdeir says the inspiration came to her when she spotted a man on top of a construction crane, kneeling.

DANIA BDEIR: That image of this man praying on top of the gigantic crane really got stuck in my head. And it just unleashed this kind of infatuation I had with crane operators.

FADEL: So she started visiting construction sites, absorbing everything she could about this largely masculine world. The workers were predominantly Syrian, paid very little, living on top of each other in tight spaces. In her film, the Lebanese singer and belly dancer Khansa plays Mohammad, a Syrian construction worker who finds the freedom to explore his gender identity on a crane high above Beirut.

BDEIR: Khansa is this incredible artist. He is a singer and a dancer and a belly dancer and an aerialist. And when he performs live, you really forget who you're watching, what gender you're watching. And it doesn't even matter. He goes between the borders of gender, femininity and masculinity, so seamlessly. Whatever traditional norms, gender, we thought we, as humans, faced, they don't really exist. So he was the inspiration of this transformation. And then when we actually had to do it, and when I found out that he's an aerialist, that's really what inspired the idea of, like, OK, what if even the cabin is not enough and cannot fit him? He has to explode beyond it. And he can perform off the tip of the crane for all of Lebanon to see finally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AL ATLAL 2")

ARABEYATI: (Singing in non-English language).

BDEIR: For that, I really wanted to shoot it in real life. But in 2018, I went to shoot a teaser. And when it was time to climb the ladder, the camera operator, who had agreed beforehand, kind of looked up at the cabin, and he looked back at me. And he's like, listen, I have kids. And he gave me the camera. And he's like, good luck.

FADEL: Wow.

BDEIR: Yeah, so I had to, myself, kind of put the camera in my backpack and climb that ladder. And the minute I got into the ladder, I felt vertigo. It's because you're vulnerable and because you realize that there's nothing really to protect you. And so really, that was the day I realized that there's no way we can shoot it in real life. I called the producer, who was relieved. So that's when she found this post-production house in France with a floor-to-ceiling curved LED wall. What we did is we flew a drone in Lebanon from the height of a crane. We got 360 images at different times of day. And we sent those to the studio, who input those in the LED screens. And basically, it was as if we were in Lebanon, even though we were in the south of France.

FADEL: In 16 minutes, you do so much with the shooting of this film. We see the world through the eyes of Mohammad. We see Beirut from the sky and also the noise of it all on the ground. But he doesn't even say a word. How did you do that? How do I know him, and he never spoke?

BDEIR: We realized he didn't need any words because he is someone who is kind of erasing himself in the beginning of the film. He is trying to not call attention to himself.

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: He is blending with the rest of the workers. And so really, we get to know him through his eyes, through him reacting and through him finally taking agency and taking these steps, literally, to climb up there. And then you can see his deepest desires when he finally expresses it.

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: And that's how, I think, you really get to know someone is not what nationality he is, not what social status he is. Those are things that he kind of was born into. But what is his deepest dream? What is his desire, what he would be doing if he weren't dealt those specific cards?

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: That's when you know someone's heart.

FADEL: That's beautiful. So after he has his day in the crane, he is free for that moment. He is outside praying. Why did you choose to put the scene there? And also, what does it say about the character, who you describe as, you know, really intersectional in the end, right?

BDEIR: We tend to want to put people in one box and one label and then call it a day. But people are very intersectional. People are very complex. People can have dreams and can have spirituality and be, you know, creatures of habits and have all of these things at the same time. And this is what felt would be true for this character. And then finally, when that is all done and the workers all end up praying at the end of the day - it's kind of their ritual - instead of being down there with the rest of them, he kind of dominated this beast, the screen that everyone's talking about as a huge threat and a huge, fearful thing. And he has this moment of spirituality and of gratitude or guilt or whatever it is that someone wants to place upon it. But he has that moment of silence away from everyone with really just him on top of the crane...

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: ...And really he can have this moment of transcendence himself.

FADEL: I'm also Lebanese. And watching Lebanon from the sky, it makes you just remember how incredibly beautiful this country is. And I'm just curious about your thoughts about Lebanon - making this film there, how difficult it was and what you wanted to depict about the country in your film.

BDEIR: I'm actually also Syrian, so both my parents are from Damascus.

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: And they moved to Beirut when they were teenagers. And so they grew up there, and I grew up there. And as I grew older, I would really hear some of the horrible things that people could say, which is a shame because these are two countries that, at some point, were one country and really are pretty much the same. And any problems that are happening between the two are purely political and societal. And it's not the people's fault.

FADEL: Right. So just for context, we should let listeners know, obviously, like, Lebanon, Syria bordered. There's a war in Syria. There's a huge refugee population in Lebanon, which is a country in the midst of an economic collapse itself. And so it - a lot of it has ended up boiling out as true bigotry for a lot of people who are there in Lebanon working and trying to survive.

BDEIR: Exactly. And I knew it with construction workers specifically because it is a job traditionally reserved for Syrians, even before the war. Whenever there was a problem politically, people's anger would come up at construction workers. So this idea of this minivan that I have in the film...

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: ...That's the minivan that you know is transporting these workers.

FADEL: Yeah. And that scene is sort of where you see that manifest 'cause somebody bangs on the van and swears at the workers inside.

BDEIR: Exactly. So this person - so Mohammad person, who's away from home, in a new country, trying to work for a better opportunity, is in a situation where he's in a country that doesn't even want him there and that doesn't even see him unless to see him as a nuisance. So really, this dream of being able to perform and finally be seen by everyone and celebrated - and for me, as a Lebanese person, 'cause I do identify as a Lebanese person, having grown up there...

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: ...And having felt the difficulty of Lebanon itself, it is a love-hate relationship. And I do feel like you can't really cut the umbilical cord, no matter how far you live and how far you go, because there's something deep in our hearts that is calling us back to this place...

FADEL: Yeah.

BDEIR: ...And so many things that we love that we will never find anywhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That's filmmaker Dania Bdeir. Her film "Warsha" will be released globally on Netflix next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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