BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A Lebanese director who has just scooped up an award at Sundance Film Festival says she wants her short to “break the norms” on sexuality and gender in the Middle East.
“Warsha” is part of a new wave of Arabic-language films – some screened abroad, others showing on streaming platforms – to confront long-standing taboos in a broadly conservative region.
The movie, which is making the rounds at top film festivals this year, revolves around Mohamad, a Syrian migrant working as a crane operator in the Lebanese capital Beirut, who escapes reality by conjuring up fantasies about a life in drag.
Last month, it won the prestigious Sundance award for best international short fiction film, joining a string of movies that move past the tropes of conflict and religion to explore what lies beneath the region’s tight social constraints.
The 15-minute production contains almost no dialogue, but Lebanese-Canadian director Dania Bdeir said her message comes through loud and clear.
“I hope anyone who watches ‘Warsha’, feels the urge to break the norms, finds freedom, and most importantly, the passion that makes them feel alive, away from any restrictions or censorship,” Bdeir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by video.
The film shows Mohamad in cramped living quarters, before moving to his grimy construction site full of gruff workers.
He makes a risky climb up to the crane control room, where the Syrian imagines himself performing a high-risk dance.
“The tower crane cabin control box is a spot that is far from everything beneath it; far from the people, far from the ground, far from the gender and cultural norms and far from all expectations set for us by society,” said the 32-year-old director, who was born in Montreal and lives between Dubai and New York City.
“I wanted to portray the possibilities one can do when he or she is separated from the grounds of expectations and norms.”
The lead is played by Lebanese LGBTQ+ performer Mohamad al-Khansa, who said the film reflected his own upbringing.
“Mohamad’s journey reflects my life – we just live in different societal classes. But the way Mohamad had to hide to find himself is an exact representation of my childhood days,” said Khansa, 29.
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Lebanon is often seen as the most liberal Middle Eastern country, but LGBTQ+ individuals face widespread discrimination, harassment and abuse by the authorities.
The Lebanese penal code bans “unnatural” sex acts, a term that critics say is open to interpretation and regularly used by police and conservative judges to detain LGBTQ+ people.
As well as depicting Mohamed’s yearnings, the film explores the menial bones of immigrant life, drawing on the million-plus Syrians who fled a decade of war for sanctuary in Lebanon.
Mohamad’s character represents a host of vulnerable communities in Lebanon: all locked out of economic opportunities – either by their gender identity, sexuality or nationality.
Film has emerged as a powerful way to boost acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in many parts of the world, according to 2020 research by consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble and GLAAD, a U.S.-based LGBT+ nonprofit.
But there are limitations on cinematic reach in the Middle East, as movies and plays need approval from government censorship bodies in many Arabic-speaking countries.
These bodies often ban productions or impose severe censorship to protect conservative values.
Since Warsha premiered at Sundance and is not yet publicly available, it remains exempt from Lebanon’s censorship process – but once the director embarks on screening it back home, she would need to apply for a permit.
Other movies that could stir controversy in the region and have not been formally approved are shown in closed private screenings.
Streaming platforms such as Netflix provide one loophole: they can broadcast content directly into homes without needing prior government authorisation.
In January, Netflix’s first Arabic film production – a remake of Italian feature “Perfect Strangers” – provoked controversy for including a gay character and a married woman sending sexual texts, as well as scenes involving alcohol.
These scenes prompted calls – particularly in conservative Egypt – to boycott Netflix and block the movie’s screening.
“While some governments in the region have outright banned these films, others have reproduced the stigma around and silencing of LGBT identities by categorising these films as shameful and in opposition to societal and family values,” said Rasha Younes of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Programme.
But Younes said these productions are a crucial way for the region’s LGBTQ+ people to feel heard and seen.
“The depiction of queer characters … is speaking truth to the realities of LGBT people in the region,” she added.