A drag queen dressed in a stunning, all-white ensemble is illuminated by a strikingly beautiful array of neon lights that greets the viewer in the opening sequence of Anya Kneez: a Queen in Beirut. In what can only be described as a dreamy trance, set to the recurring tone of club music, Anya demands the attention of the viewer from the get-go.
Directed by Beirut-based filmmaker Mohamad Abdouni and produced under Cold Cuts, a newly-founded online platform, the short-form documentary follows its titular, Lebanese queen, Anya Kneez, as she navigates through daily life in Beirut. Having moved from Brooklyn about five years ago, the short explores her struggles and victories against a culture that is unable to accommodate her lifestyle, presenting a stark contrast to a life she’d previously led in New York.
Formally speaking, Anya Kneez is cleverly shot. Alternating between the club sequence where she fully assumes her drag persona and sequences with the boy underneath it all, the film allows the viewer entry into Anya’s process, gradually circling back to the opening shots, albeit extended and with much more insight.
Often times, films of this nature make a spectacle out of their subject matter; that is, they present the film to the viewer from the gaze of an outsider trying to further understand the culture – ideologically, socially, and politically. But what Abdouni successfully manages to do is remove himself – and, to some extent, the viewer – from his work, allowing Anya to tell her own story. This is seen especially in the camera-work that allows Anya to dominate her scenes: she is only partly visible to the viewer and is therefore at a leverage of sorts. Anya Kneez doesn’t attempt to show you the dazzling life of a queen at all; it is instead more concerned with a personal approach that underlines the nature of the boy behind Anya, one who leads a functional life of work, friends, and family that otherwise parallels that of most Beiruti milennials.
The film uses its 11-minute run effectively, delving into the daily happenings of its subject all the while providing apt social commentary on the hardships of leading a queer life in the Middle East: “I’m a queer homosexual. My circumstances don’t fit in this country. The circumstances in this country don’t fit my lifestyle,” Anya laments. Though the ending is rather off-handish and abrupt, the result as a whole is an impressive and important work that needs to be shown, especially in a space where it is challenged.
At a time when queer individuals in neighbouring countries (and in Lebanon) are being apprehended, held, and brutalised, there is perhaps no more important a moment to seek queer art expression as one form of rebellion and condemnation. As such, works like Anya Kneez become essential queer viewing and a step in a long path towards normalising queerness where it is not welcome. It is through impassioned and brazen projects such as this one that the fight will persist.
Having met Ms. Anya in person, I can tell you that she is as charming in drag as he is out of it, so do take 10 minutes out of your day and check out this queen’s story on the official Youtube channel for Cold Cuts. Anya Kneez: a Queen in Beirut is currently enjoying its festival run, having recently been nominated for Best Short Documentary at the International Queer and Migrant Film Festival.