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Queer Arab Joy in Anya Kneez: A Film Review

[Screenshot from Anya Kneez (2017), taken from Vimeo.] [Screenshot from Anya Kneez (2017), taken from Vimeo.]

Anya Kneez, a short documentary directed by Mohamed Abdouni and produced in association with Cold Cuts, premiered in June 2017 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, with an additional screening held in Mar Mikhael, Beirut at AR_KA. The eleven-minute film provides an intimate look into the complex life of Abdouni’s best friend, Anya Kneez, a drag queen living in Beirut. Carving out space in our hetero-normative world, Anya Kneez provides visual representation of queer and gender non-conforming Arab culture that is rarely seen. Resisting Western narratives that paint the existence of queer Arabs as contradictory or downright impossible, this film gives agency to the community and portrays our story without shying away from its nuances.

Over the course of the film, Anya’s transformation into her drag persona is revealed through spliced footage and narrative voiceovers, ultimately delivering an enticing visual experience in combination with a heartfelt personal history. Immediately forging an intimate connection with viewers, the film begins with extreme close-ups that show Anya’s makeup ritual and creation of her look, shifting between her bedroom and the streets of Beirut. Simultaneously, we listen as she narrates her life—growing up in the United States as a “fully blooded Lebanese” and navigating coming of age as a queer Arab in a family who views the queer community unfavourably. Ultimately finding a sense of freedom through fashion and drag, Anya discusses notions of identity and belonging as rooted in multiple sites, both literal and metaphorical. Residing somewhat reluctantly in Beirut due to familial and career responsibilities, she obviously still feels an affinity towards the city and culture despite how “[her] circumstances do not fit in [the] country,” which is a central part of her struggle. The apex of the film comes when we finally see Anya’s profile in full frame for the first time, her drag look complete as she dons a headpiece and laughingly notes through voiceover “I am my mother,” alluding to the influence of family, no matter how fraught the relationship.  

Anya Kneez touches upon several difficult truths of being a queer Arab and navigating cultural and familial expectations, but the film also does something even more important than simply tell that story—it shows how joy can still be a part of our narrative. Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Anya dancing solo in a club under pulsating blue and purple lights, however, not until the last few frames of the film do we see a frontal view of her face and the utter happiness she emotes. Thus, viewers understand that despite the hardships Anya faces living as a queer, gender non-conforming drag queen in Beirut, there is still strength and joy to be found in her identity and life. The film’s representation of queer Arab joy and resilience is truly necessary in today’s media realm, as it both challenges hegemonic Western narratives surrounding queer Arab existence and brings strength to our community.  

The complete film can be viewed below.

COLD CUTS PRESENTS • ANYA KNEEZ: A Queen in Beirut from Cold Cuts on Vimeo.