There are lots of controversial subjects out there, but it's difficult to imagine a film more likely to ruffle feathers than Jake Witzenfeld's Oriented. The documentary follows three gay Palestinian men in their 20s living in Tel Aviv, portraying their struggles and victories as they try to navigate the difficulties of being... well, gay and Palestinian. Khader is the scion of a Muslim mafia family who lives with his Jewish boyfriend; Naim is struggling to come out to his conservative, village-dwelling family; and Fadi tries to balance his Palestinian nationalism with an attraction to Jewish men. The three best friends decide to form a group called "Qambuta," hoping to bring about change through exposure to their unique sexual and national identities. It's a funny, moving exploration of a sensitive but important issue, and examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a unique lens. I sat down with Witzenfeld over a coffee in New York City and asked him what it was like to make this documentary.
VICE: I'm going to ask the typical question, but what got you interested in this topic?
Jake Witzenfeld: The three guys I followed in the film made a video that spoke to the Palestinian community inside Israel. They wanted to say that it's OK to be gay, it's OK to not want to get married, it's acceptable. This video is how I discovered them. I saw it online and I was like, "This is fucking fresh." I'd not seen a visibly Palestinian voice coming out of Tel Aviv, and it was a gay Palestinian voice.
What was directing the film like for you emotionally? I'm sure you got close to these three men.
In the beginning, I felt like I found Rosa Parks at the back of the bus. I found this political moment, and then they disappointed me in my projection of wanting that because they're human and political change comes about through smaller actions. I transitioned in my approach and realized that actually the story here was the story of these three friends who share an identity complex. It's a smaller story. It's not going to end with the region on fire or with, like, Arabs crossing the borders and embracing their brothers in the West Bank and in Gaza.
The ambivalence is cathartic, I think. –Jake Witzenfeld
Obviously people are going to have their opinions on this. It's a loaded topic. What were some of the issues that came up during your screenings? Did the audience have a reaction?
What I loved about the reactions is that what I wanted has worked, which is to try and cut through everyone's immediate, black-and-white, absolutist stances on the conflict, and move things into gray space. It's OK to feel ambivalent. My frustration in being surrounded by the Israel-Palestine discourse as a young Jewish guy from a traditional Jewish world and then [participating in] student politics and then spending time in Tel Aviv is that there's constant discussion. If it were as simple as having an opinion, it could have been solved by now. It's not that easy, but we're all locked into our views and anything that makes us feel certain. The ambivalence is cathartic, I think.
"Pinkwashing" is a term I've heard used in this discussion to describe the way Israelis talk about how tolerant they are towards LGBT people. But some see it as a distraction from the Palestinian question.
Well, it's not a film about pinkwashing, but obviously it came up. And being a British straight Jew telling the story of gay Palestinians in Tel Aviv, it's like the red light goes off immediately. I tried to include that aspect of their distaste for it. They don't go to Pride in Tel Aviv because they don't want to be associated with that. They're thinking about the checkpoints that their mates who are trying to come in from Ramallah to be in Tel Aviv for Pride don't get safe passage through. There was a moment where I'm filming Khader [one of the three friends] at Pride Berlin and this elaborate drag artist is walking along with a big Israel Pride sign behind him. Khader just turns around, looks at the camera, and rolls his eyes. As soon as I had that, I was like, "Awesome." Because I knew that the pinkwashing thing was going to be a concern, especially from people who are coming at this from a Palestinian perspective.
It was nothing about being Palestinian. It was nothing about being Jewish. It was nothing about any of that. It was just about helping a friend. –Jake Witzenfeld
I love that scene with Naim and his family, when he's trying to come out but he can't do it. It was so funny the way his family was talking because I was like, "Oh my God, that is my family." In so many ways, that is every Arab family. Like, "Why you don't move closer to home? You need to be near your family. You need to get married. Young people these days." It really resonated for me. How did you present the film to his family?
I told them that I was making a film about generation gap in the community. Naim wasn't out to them at that point. When I first met Naim, he told me he didn't want to talk about his sexuality on camera. I said that was completely fine. I didn't know what the film was going to be about. One evening, the guys were going for a drink, so I went down, drank with them, and started shooting really without any rationale, just capturing them hanging. Out of nowhere, Naim turns around and says, "I'm going to tell my parents. I've decided. It's time. I can't go on not being myself to the people who love and support me most in the world." I kept rolling obviously, and I was like, "Yeah? We're doing this?" He said yes. I think the film became a bit of a journey. I went through that whole thing with him. It was amazing that he gave me access, and it was also amazing just as a person to have that dialogue. It was nothing about being Palestinian. It was nothing about being Jewish. It was nothing about any of that. It was just about helping a friend. I think that intimacy comes through in the film.
What were some of the challenges you faced getting that kind of access, especially in terms of the Arab community?
I think I had to let go of my cultural baggage and assumptions and just be open. We shot Khader's sister's wedding. It was in deep Jaffa, like hood Jaffa, not gentrifying where-I-live Jaffa and where the boys live. We get there, and we're, like, this white film crew. We're in the middle of this wedding in someone's courtyard and that was the challenge, like being out of place but just trying to be comfortable. One of his cousins comes up to me at one point and starts yelling at me. "What are you doing here?" Then he grabs my arm and puts a big smile on and he's like, "I'm fucking with you." I actually found it to be a gesture of respect to me that he knew I could take that as a joke. It was a really special moment in the process. But there were some challenges to access. I'm pretty sure Naim's father thought I was working for the Shabak [Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service]. He interviewed me before I got to take out my camera. He asked me what I was doing there, and I just said to him, "I'm sitting on your couch," and he liked that. But yeah, there was a little suspicion there.
What kind of tension did you see between being Palestinian and being gay, as an identity?
I think the three leads share a complicated identity complex. On the one hand, it's about the fact that they're too gay for the village. It's their conflict with the heteronormative, chauvinistic Arab community that struggles with its sexuality. Two is national, with the state of Israel. Unlike their parents' generation who were much more hush-hush, gentleman's agreement with the state, they're like, "Fuck that, we're Palestinian. We like Israelis getting pissed off if we call ourselves Palestinian and not Israeli or Israeli-Arab. It's complex, but our grandparents were born here." The tension that comes out of that is real. Also, I don't think it's so easy for them to explain their Palestinian-ness to somebody in Gaza. They're sipping cappuccinos in Tel Aviv and running inside when the sirens go off, but others are having their houses destroyed or their families killed. They have Palestinian white guilt, which is something I'd never even thought about until I met them. But I do think their Palestinian nationalism is a legitimate expression. It's just a really different one.
So lastly, how did you manage to focus on the humans and not the politics?
Very naturally, because I was quite tired of the politics and very excited about the humans.
To host a screening, email email@example.com. Keep an eye on US screening dates and international premieres coming soon at orientedfilm.com.
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