Sirens wail and explosions erupt as gay couple Khader Abu Seif and David Pearl shelter in the stairwell of their apartment complex in Tel Aviv. Their dog whimpers and paces nervously. Part of everyday life here as the 2014 conflict rages between Palestine and Israel. The most telling part of the scene is their dislocation as a couple, showing more affection to, and even competing over, their dog, rather than reaching out to one another.
The silence that hangs heavy in the air has little to do with the conflict, with Abu Seif identifying as a Palestinian Muslim and Pearl a “Jew-ish” Israeli, and a great deal more to do with an everyday couple drifting apart. An incredible moment of unspoken clarity, it’s one of many in Oriented, the richly painted and deeply rewarding debut documentary feature from British director Jake Witzenfeld.
Benefiting greatly from the eyes of an outsider, Oriented explores the complexities of young gay Palestinian men wrestling with their national, political, familial and sexual identities while enjoying the freedoms afforded to them by Tel Aviv’s nightlife.
Witzenfeld came across Abu Seif’s savvy activism on Facebook and was intrigued by his community work and parties that mingled straight and queer culture, Jewish and Arab. Grabbing his number from a mutual friend, Witzenfeld contacted Abu Seif. “Khader and I went for a drink and I think he was a little bit peeved to discover that I was straight,” he laughs.
Nonetheless, Witzenfeld gained Abu Seif’s trust and through him was introduced his friends, Fadi Daeem, a “grungy punk militant Palestinian nationalist,” with a, “twist in his stomach,” about living in Israel and Naeem Jiryes, a sweet young man still not out to his very traditional villager family who do not understand his fascination with the bright lights of the big city, leading to a rather hilarious dinner table debate about who should sacrifice happiness to be with or without family.
“I liked that very Middle Eastern way of talking about family. ‘Why can’t you sacrifice that 10 per cent. Why cant you?’ When we got the transcript back and I was reading through it, because there were even longer points in the actual conversation, I remember seeing the two 10 per cents and thinking ‘oh my lord, this is amazing, you couldn’t write this shit.’”
Complexity shifts and surges throughout this touching exploration of multiple identities living at odds with each other and Oriented is both very funny and very sad, often at the same time. Witzenfeld took a back seat, getting to know the three men without shooting for a very long time, at first unsure what his story would be, though he was drawn to Abu Seif’s direction of several confronting, sexy and occasionally silly viral videos as cultural resistance group Qambuta.
“Once I did start to get my teeth into it, as any young delusions of grandeur director, I thought I had Rosa Parks on the way to the back of the bus,” Witzenfeld levels. “The Arab Spring had been dwindling and everyone’s hope about it was down, but being young and naïve I thought this is going to be the revival with Palestinians in Israel and the liberal youth of the Middle East are going to unite.”
While peace didn’t quite sweep across the region and instead war rumbles onto the scene, Witzenfeld realised his story was more intimate. “Though there are those grand actions of history, burning yourself in a market, sitting in the back of the bus, they are built on the shoulders of much smaller actions like who do you fuck and were do you party? When do you share your culture with someone you have feelings for? I realised that their very small effort to make some videos and send them out to their community and say ‘hey, we’re here,’ was kind of enough, so the film became much more about the personal than the political, and the political through the personal.”
Abu Seif, rarely detached from his smartphone, is incredibly aware of the power of social media. Strip-searched on return to Tel Aviv after Oriented won an award at a film festival in Romania, his subsequent Facebook post was liked well over 1,000 times within a few hours.
“The next thing he was on the six o’clock news,” Witzenfeld says. “Khader’s really switched on and his phone is a symbol of his wider character. He doesn’t profess to know the road map to peace, or what borders should look like, but I do think he believes wholeheartedly that his voice, and people like him, are missing from the conversation and he’s had enough of that.”
Daeem has perhaps the most complex journey in the film. Unimpressed with how many Jewish people come to Abu Seif’s parties in the opening scene, later he picks up a soldier from the Israeli Defense Force at a club. There’s a spark between them that thoroughly shakes him, coming to a head in a tearful scene at Abu Seif’s sister’s wedding as he confesses his conflicted emotions to best straight female friend Nagham Yacoub. She challenges him to follow his happiness, rather than political beliefs in one of the movie’s emotional highlights. “It’s an amazing scene,” Witzenfeld agrees. “Letting go of that twist in the stomach was really hard for Fadi because of that deep-rooted and also quite intellectual understanding of his past.”
“When you’re sipping an espresso in Jaffa and a siren goes off, which means you’ve got two minutes to get into one of the bunkers on every corner of this city, then you go back and sit with your coffee and do the Tel Aviv resilient thing which is getting on with your day straight away."
Witzenfeld was also deeply affected by Jiryes' story. At first reluctant to confirm his sexuality on camera, he later decides to come out to his parents in another heart-fluttering moment. “I was there when he wrote the letter to his parents, drove him to drop it off, stayed with him at his friends place and was there a week or so later when he wanted to make the call.
"This film for me was so much about not shooting. It was about just being someone’s friend and, through that, understanding what was right to film, but also when. I had a really amazing experience with him and he really let me into his world in a very intimate way.”
Witzenfeld was in the middle of editing his first cut when war broke out, ending up shooting a great deal more than expected. While it deeply shook him as an outsider, he says it was much worse for Abu Seif, Daeem and Jiryes. “When you’re sipping an espresso in Jaffa and a siren goes off, which means you’ve got two minutes to get into one of the bunkers on every corner of this city, then you go back and sit with your coffee and do the Tel Aviv resilient thing which is getting on with your day straight away.
"That’s fine for anyone who doesn’t call themselves Palestinian, but if you’re Palestinian, the people who send that rocket are Palestinian are as well, as are the people whose houses aren’t protected by the Iron Dome, currently sitting in rubble in Gaza. And you’re here. I think that their experience is one of the most challenging on an emotional level that I’ve ever been aware of.”