Caught between worlds, gay Palestinians search for a fulfilling sense of identity.
For 15 months, filmmaker Jake Witzenfeld, a straight British Jew, followed three gay Palestinians — Khader Abu-Seif, Fadi Daeem, and Naeem Jiryes — as they lived their lives in Tel Aviv. Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens account for 20% of the country’s population, but as members of this large minority, Abu-Seif, Daeem, and Jiryes are caught between worlds, straddling rigid divides. They feel themselves to be less Palestinian than those in the Occupied Territories, and though they hold Israeli passports, their ethnic identity resists the label “Israeli.” They live in Tel Aviv, a haven for gay life in the Middle East, but that link to their fellow LGBT Israelis is tenuous.
Witzenfeld initially sought to explore the confused space occupied by gay Arab-Israelis, to learn how young, progressive Palestinians orient themselves within their society. For them, even the simplest decisions — whether to go out to an Arab or Jewish club, whether a guy is too Zionist to date, whether to pre-drink to Hebrew or Arabic music — carry undue weight.
But then, war. Captured on film, the devastating Gaza conflict of the summer of 2014 laid bare the precarious position of Palestinians generally in Israel. “At night, lots of right-wing radicals would run past our apartment screaming, ‘Death to the Arabs!’ And you understand why people [Israeli Jews] are so irritated,” Abu-Seif says. “They don’t want to live their lives afraid” of rockets from Gaza, of kidnappings, he explains. “But from the other side, they aren’t aware that they are terrorizing me, that they terrorize Arabs living inside Israel.” The war also proved to Abu-Seif that his sexual and national identities are ultimately inseparable. “To define myself just on my sexuality would be great, but I cannot. Every time there is a war, every time something happens politically, automatically, all I am is an Arab. The enemy.”
Oriented (go to OrientedFilm.com for screening schedule) doesn’t offer answers. It aims to unsettle and confuse, to shake off preconceived beliefs and inspire conversation. “I want Oriented to be the kick in the knees that gets people talking,” Witzenfeld says, “because we need it.” —J.M.