‘Oriented’ Examines What it Means to be Gay and Palestinian in Israel
by Amara McLaughlin
Two years ago Jake Witzenfeld, a new Jewish Tel Aviv transplant from England, discovered Qambuta Productions—a fresh, subversive and artistic Palestinian voice on YouTube that uses parody to illustrate social and political issues in the Arab community. Compelled by the group’s provocative message, Witzenfeld arranged to meet Khader Abu-Seif, the man behind Qambuta Productions. Their initial meeting led to Witzenfeld’s debut documentary film, Oriented, which had premiere screenings in June throughout the U.S. and U.K.
Oriented captures the lives of three gay Palestinian friends living in Israel’s gay mecca, Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The film transcends borders between the typical geopolitics of Israel-Palestine and showcases a provocative, yet relatable friendship between three Arabs in their late-twenties as they confront the world and themselves.
“I was really intrigued by this new Palestinian voice coming out of Jaffa that was protesting its own community about values that a lot of people don’t speak of,” says Witzenfeld, who was initially captivated by the long-term relationship between Abu-Seif, a gay Arab Israeli, and his former boyfriend, David Pearl, an Israeli Jew. He wanted to build the documentary around Abu-Seif’s and Pearl’s relationship—but Abu-Seif, who had been approached by media before regarding his relationship with Pearl, had a different idea about how he wanted the Palestinian LGBT community to be portrayed. Abu-Seif’s revelatory perspective is the soul of Oriented. He shares a new, raw and intimate exposé of his community.
“He was brilliantly insightful about knowing the pitfalls of a British Jew doing a story,” says Witzenfeld. “He didn’t want this to be a film about a gay Muslim and Jew living together in Tel Aviv, being happy. He wanted it to be about something he said was an Arab Woodstock going on in Israel.”
Abu-Seif, 28, is a force within Tel Aviv’s queer community. Well-known in his hometown of Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s largely Arab next-door neighbor, Abu-Seif is not afraid to be heard. A regular writer in Time Out Tel Aviv and a columnist for Al-Masdar, an Arabic news site in Israel, where he blogs about his life in Tel Aviv, this provocateur is accustomed to sharing his opinion that bridges the gap between the perception of gay Palestinians and the reality of their lives. “I want to show the world that we exist,” says Abu-Seif, referring to the LGBT Palestinian community. “This is the beginning that we need to promote all over the world.”
Prior to his initial meeting with Witzenfeld in January 2013, Abu-Seif was approached by a BBC journalist who was intrigued by the politics behind his relationship with Pearl, with whom he was living at the time. She wanted a “Palestinian who suffered,” says Abu-Seif in an interview, describing this as part of “pinkwashing,” which, he says, paints the queer Palestinian and Arab communities as politically loaded, repressed and victimized minorities. “I am liberal exactly like you,” he proclaims in the interview with a spark of impatience. On and off screen, Witzenfeld says, Abu-Seif “is naturally good at changing people’s perceptions of Arabs in Israel even beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict—trying to break the monotonous representation in Arab and Western media” of Palestinians.
Oriented presents a new generation of Palestinians, focusing on Abu-Seif and his friends Fadi Daem, Naeem Jiryes and Nagham Yacoub. The documentary is “about our lives,” says Abu-Seif. Oriented is a personal story that confronts Arab society and confronts Jewish Israeli society by exploring a prism of identities. “We need to protect our nationality and also our sexuality identity,” says Abu-Seif. “From one point we’re confronting our society, Arab society, and from another point we’re confronting the Israeli-Jewish society.” The film explores these tensions and takes them further. It is a collage of discussion that has unsealed a version of Israel and Palestine not formerly presented, beyond a national experience of identity.
The collaboration among Witzenfeld, Abu-Seif, Daem, Jiryes and Yacoub has produced an intercultural revolution that traverses geography, nationality, religion, sexual orientation and migration. “It’s a revolutionary film because it’s about a new wave of young people who aren’t afraid to show off their national identity inside of Israel,” says Abu-Seif. “It’s about friendship, our lives, our connection to Israelis, the Jewish community, and how we deal with that.” The personal undulations throughout the film give a raw taste of the complexities and emotions for the characters and director who are forced to confront enculturation during the production of the film. “My biggest challenge was letting go of any cultural baggage that I had and completely listening to this dialogue with this community and with the guys who became very dear friends,” says Witzenfeld, former president of Cambridge University’s Israel society. He describes this as an ongoing process: “In terms of my Jewishness, I’m so tired on the absolute black and white perspective. I want to be open enough to consume the stories of others.”
As Abu-Seif wants to present a new generation of Palestinians, Witzenfeld wants to present a new generation of Jews. “One of the things that really struck me quite early on about the guys was this comparison to Zionism,” he says. “Zionism is too radical for the shtetl and too Jewish for Berlin… Jews were outsiders in both places… And where the Jews were too liberal, these guys were just too gay and too liberal as well.” They didn’t fit into their societies. Daem, 27, grew up in a small Arab town, I’Billin, northeast of Haifa, and Jiryes, 26, grew up in Kafr Yasif, an Arab town in northern Israel. The film explores Tel Aviv as a character of liberal convergence, an urban oasis, where “gays from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, or Holland can come,” says Abu-Seif. Daem and Jiryes moved to Tel Aviv-Jaffa to study nursing at Tel Aviv University and didn’t leave because the city granted them a right to self-determination. “In Khader and the guys starting to talk, starting to shift things” within their communities, “there is a sense of a national revival—an awakening of a part of Palestinian identity that’s been quite quiet publicly,” says Witzenfeld. “It’s a kind of postmodern Israel.”
“My contribution is to tell more stories that enter this gray space,” says Witzenfeld, an unaffiliated Jew whose voice is sensitive and receptive to the Palestinian narrative. Witzenfeld’s camera has focused on the Palestinian LGBT community because it dwells in a gray space: “The Palestinian LGBT community is the most progressive by necessity because there’s a distance between young gay Palestinians in Israel and their parents’ generation. That distance means they feel further away from home than their parents do. They feel further away from that identity. Strangely, they’re also a generation that grew up with the Internet and the changing, surrounding Middle East, and with online examples of a different life. In that, they developed a ‘we can have this too’ approach, triggered by their parents. Like, we don’t need to do what you’re doing, but we can have this liberalism and openness too. They move to Tel Aviv-Jaffa because that’s where they can live their lives in such a way. And there because they then come in contact with the Jewish community, that’s why the LGBT community is so progressive.”
Oriented does not shy away from complexity. The film’s essence is a story of friends who share four key identities: Gender, opposite the heteronormative classification of their parents’ generation; national identity issues of being Palestinian in Israel with an Israeli passport; nationality issues of being Palestinian and not feeling entitled to that label because these four friends do not live in Gaza or the West Bank; and the world’s perception of Palestine and Palestinians.
Witzenfeld, Abu-Seif, Daem, Jiryes and Yacoub are united by their feelings of otherness inside Israel. “We don’t care that the director is Jewish,” says Abu-Seif. They all know what it’s like to be outsiders in Israel and experience feelings of being foreigners where they live. Oriented transcends the traditional conflict. “Let us define ourselves,” he says. “It’s going to take our community way more time to develop, but also we need to opportunity to do it.” Oriented is a start.