What’s life like for gay Palestinians?

Oriented, a refreshingly candid documentary, offers a glimpse inside the personal lives of Tel Aviv’s minorities

Coming from the Middle East, any human story seems destined to be drowned out by geopolitical analyses of the region’s interminable woes. But buried beneath the statistics and reports is the true story: people are talking, fucking, raving, working, protesting and, like all of us, trying to make sense of who the hell they are.

Now, revelatory documentary Oriented prises open the personal lives of its cast of gay Palestinian and Israeli citizens, drawing us into the crises intrinsic to this cocktail of identities. Yet despite being set in progressive Tel Aviv, the gay capital of the Middle East where homosexuality was decriminalised in 1988, the societal and familial pressures on the intrepid friends form tangible shadows. And that is before taking into account that there is a deathly reason that we do not hear of the vast majority of LGBT people living in these lands. It has led to the current situation where “the west has monopolised concepts of liberalism and of being out the closet,” as Khader, one of the stars of Oriented, says early on.

Captivated by a viral video which illustrated the heartbreak of the thousands of Middle Eastern folk who have no choice but to stay hidden, first-time director Jake Witzenfeld arranged to go for a drink with one of its makers, Khader, kick-starting an intense, artistic collaboration. “At our first meeting, Khader said, ‘I don’t want someone to come along and tell this story of co-existence in Tel Aviv,’” says Witzenfeld. “He struck me as someone looking to define a new Palestinian national identity.”

“I told him about my specific crowd and generation in our community,” says Khader, “and we dove into exploring this new state of mind that isn’t sure where it belongs, both nationally and sexually.”

Over the course of 15 months, Oriented’s three leads – Khader, Fadi and Naeem – offered up their lives to Witzenfeld’s lens. We follow the trio, along with close girl friend Nagham, on nights out and days in in this progressive Middle Eastern city. The cast's ease on camera wasn’t only down to a strong rapport. “These guys speak in sentences that contain English, Arabic and Hebrew,” Witzenfeld explains. “It’s a local phenomenon. So, by not understanding Arabic, I was able to allow them some distance, which is why there’s a pronounced intimacy.”

“Obviously I was aware that people would see it through this prism of political issues, but I didn’t feel the need to make big statements. Then as the war emerged, it was unavoidable” – Jake Witzenfeld

The group’s initial aim was for Oriented to evade the political altogether, but as the Israeli-Palestine war of summer 2014 unravelled, the implausibility of that goal was all too apparent. “My real wish was to decode their complicated identities. Obviously, I was aware that people would see it through this prism of political issues, but I didn’t feel the need to make big statements. Then as the war emerged, it was unavoidable. That’s life in Tel Aviv. Everyone is fed up. Everyone has had enough of these recurring wars – and that’s the same if you’re Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Muslim, gay or lesbian, black, blue, green, white or yellow.”

Thankfully, by the time the rockets start flying, the viewer is firmly embedded within this warm, charismatic group, so Oriented’s focus on the human isn’t subsequently swallowed up by the tragic developments. The politics and identity of its creator also demanded acknowledgment. “That’s the title, Oriented,” says Witzenfeld, “I had to give a nod to Orientalism and that exact notion. But our process was just both sides being honest. There was mutual curiosity. And I think, among their scene, I became the exotic other in a way.” 

As the media is increasingly saturated with reports on the rise of extremist views in many hideous guises – homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, antisemitism, nationalist fervour and militant Islamism to name but a few – we need to be reminded of and nurture our similarities more than ever. Oriented offers one such opportunity, and a compelling one at that. “I have no idea how much the global audience cares or wants to know more about the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Khader says. “But I hope that people recognise us and our desire to be recognised, and just know that we exist in this big mess.”

Oriented will screen as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest on June 6