Director Jake Witzenfeld and Naeem Jiryes talk about documentary Oriented, which explores the complex identities and battles for recognition of gay Palestinians living in Israel.

Director Jake Witzenfeld and Naeem Jiryes talk about documentary Oriented, which explores the complex identities and battles for recognition of gay Palestinians living in Israel.

“We are Palestine, we’re here and we are queer,” chant Khader Abu-Seif and his friends in documentary Oriented. Faced with huge pressure inside their own community to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict above all other debates, the group felt suffocated and took to YouTube to open up a conversation around gender, identity and sexuality among Israel’s Palestinian community.

Under the banner of Qambuta Productions, they created satirical music videos which explored their complex and often contradictory sense of identity, and their battle for recognition and acceptance from the Palestinian community and beyond.

Oriented director Jake Witzenfeld, a British Jew, began looking into their story after seeing Qambuta’s videos online. He was interested in documenting the  relationship between Khader, an Arab Palestinian activist, and David, a Jewish Israeli producer. But after Khader and his friends Fadi Daeem, and Naeem Jiryes invited Jake into their world, they took ownership of the film, shaping it into an exploration of LGBTQ Palestinian society. It’s a rare glimpse into a tiny micro-community of 1.7 million Israeli Arabs – who are Christian, Muslim and Druze – making up roughly 20% of Israel’s population.

Jake filmed with the group for 15 months to experience their lives caught between nations, religions and other easily understandable labels.

Their fraught identities are drawn into sharp focus by the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, the friends sit around having drinks at a bar in Tel Aviv during the height of an Israeli military assault on Gaza. They discuss the powerlessness, anger and confusion they feel about knowing they live in a nation whose very existence they dispute, while Israeli military strikes are raining down on fellow Palestinians in Gaza.

To find out more about the complex tangle of nationality, religion, politics and sexuality the group have to navigate just to lead their day-to-day lives, Huck spoke to director Jake and one of those featured in the film, Naeem Jiryes.

Naeem, what inspired you and your friends to speak out?
Naeem: It’s hard to find the words to explain this feeling. It’s all very complicated but at one point we realised had to fight for our sexual identity at the same time as fighting for our political identity. We often get lost between which one is more important. We are a minority, we exist, but everyone is not ready to come out, talk about it and fight for that identity. For us, everything started when we wanted to do something about the silence and make a statement. It began with these low budget videos and grew up to this huge film.

We wanted to do something as a group of friends to show the problems that we suffer from and somehow characterise our community and to convey a message to a new generation of gay Palestinian guys. We just sat down and everyone spoke about the issues that trouble us. We decided to convey this message through art.

Fadi, Khader and Naeem on set for one of their videos.

Fadi, Khader and Naeem on set for one of their videos.

What were the issues you felt you really had to get on the agenda?
Naeem: Everyone says that Israel is a gay-friendly county, but that’s only true of Tel Aviv. You can’t walk down the streets holding hands in Bethlehem, Beersheba or Haifa, for example. So for us, it’s even more difficult because we are a minority inside a minority inside a minority.

On the other hand we have to deal with our parents and our community in our villages. It’s true that we’re living our lives and having a blast in Tel Aviv, but it also comes with a price and a sacrifice – as you can see when I came out to my family in the film. It’s true that we are more comfortable, but we don’t feel we belong in Tel Aviv or to Israel – even though we have Israeli passports. We talk about how hard it is to come out in the Palestinian community and how many people are stuck in the closet or are forced into marriage by their families.

How did you go about trying to turn this story into a documentary?
Jake: I felt like the best way was through the guys’ personal lives. If you break it down, you’re dealing with a four-pronged identity complex – and there’s a distinction between an identity crisis and an identity complex, because that’s about how you deal with it. The four prongs are firstly: too gay for the village, too liberal for this traditional, minority Palestinian community of Muslim and Christian Israeli citizens. That’s the main focus of the film, which would be challenging enough for most people to deal with.

Secondly, you have the national issue opposite your Jewish countrymen with whom you share a passport but often aren’t accepted on an equal footing. When I went out with the guys I was surprised when they would be barred from night clubs or takeaways wouldn’t deliver to them when they discovered they had Arab names, for example. Little cases of racism that by and large are improving and less pronounced in Tel Aviv, but that’s not true of the rest of the county. Those moments can weigh super hard because you’re enjoying that space because of the sexual liberation it offers.

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Then I think there’s a kind of guilt complex that comes with of identifying as Palestinian when you’re not in Gaza or the West Bank. How do I own that? These guys come from villages that have been Palestinian since long before the state of Israel existed, so Hamas and the Palestinian Authority don’t have the right to call them traitors and conspirators, because ultimately they didn’t decide their fate.

Seeing that come to light in a time of war, it’s incredibly complex. I saw Palestinian friends in Tel Aviv during that period in really dramatic states of existential darkness. They can go for coffee and they can go for drinks but they can do nothing while one of the most advanced militaries in the world is protecting missiles coming in from Gaza but their fellow Palestinians are having a much tougher time.

Finally, their relationship with the Western media. When a BBC journalist contacts Khader, his story “isn’t suffering enough.” So the final aspect is being objectified and being ignored because you don’t fit a narrative that suits Western media or Western perceptions and representations of this conflict. There’s no room for this identity – and there never has been because this story blurs and almost makes absurd the very fixed understandings that we have.

Oriented is released on iTunes, 21 June 2016.

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