Film review: ‘We are Palestine, we’re here and we are queer’

Unlike previous films made about gay Palestinians in Israel, ‘Oriented’ is not about Jewish saviors trying to protect Palestinians from political or social repercussions. 

Three men in their mid-twenties are gathered at a Tel Aviv apartment, preparing to go out to a dance party at a popular Jaffa bar called Anna Loulou. Speaking in Arabic laced with Hebrew expressions and the occasional English phrase, they warm up with vodka and grapefruit juice as they sprawl on the couches, talking and listening to music . Will there be Jews at the party? asks one of the young men. Yes, answers another. There will be some. But they’re leftists. They support us. They’re not coming to sing “Viva la Occupation.” The third says, with heavy irony, “Right, they’re coming to save us.” All three men laugh. “Our saviors,” they say.

“Oriented,” a documentary film directed by Jake Witzenfeld, follows the lives of Khader Abu Seif and his friends Fadi and Naim. All three are gay Palestinian citizens of Israel who live and work in Tel Aviv. They are politically active and assertive about their right to define their own complex identity —  and they’re not at all interested in conforming to the expectations of others.

This is probably the first film about gay Palestinians that is blissfully free of cliches. Over a period of about 18 months, the film travels from Tel Aviv to Galilee villages, to Berlin and to Amman. It is a time period that coincides with the 2014 war in Gaza and the immolation of Mohamed Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem. As the three men cook meals, dance at parties, lie on the beach and make political statements via choreographed videos they upload to Youtube, they and their friends  successfully challenge the received wisdom about homosexual life in the Arab Middle East — particularly the politically loaded templates that are imposed on gay Palestinians by Jewish Israeli society. As Khader, the charismatic protagonist of the film, puts it to a Jewish audience at Tel Aviv’s Open Center for LGBTQ, he is a member of a new generation of Palestinians — one that most people are not familiar with.

Khader, who was born and raised in Jaffa, lives in Tel Aviv with his Jewish partner, who immigrated to Israel as a child from Armenia. His parents, he emphasizes, know he’s gay and accept him. But while the two have been together for three years, Khader is at his most animated when hanging out with Fadi, Naim — and Nagham, a woman who studied nursing with Fadi and has become the fourth member of their tightly-knit group.

All of them have found a degree of freedom in Tel Aviv that is not available in their conservative hometowns. But in scenes that take place at the family homes of Fadi and Naim, “the village” is not necessarily a place that is hostile only to gays. It’s just a conservative small town that can be stifling, like most conservative small towns.

Naim, who early in the film describes himself as “Palestinian, vegetarian, atheist and feminist,” has so far not come out to his parents, which is an ongoing issue that he finally tackles bravely. But Fadi, a melancholy type who describes himself as “very political,” has loving parents who know he’s gay and accept him completely. When he takes his friends to the family home in the village of Ibillin, his parents put whiskey and beer on the table and his mother jokes that the village is so conservative and stifling that sometimes she goes to visit friends in Ramallah just so that she can “let loose” as she puts it — go out dancing, drinking and smoking nargileh in public. The implication: in the cities of the occupied Palestinian territories, social mores among Arabs are more liberal than they are inside Israel.

In another scene, the group goes to Amman to attend a rock concert. Amman, says Fadi, is their gateway to the Arab world. The place they feel really free. Tel Aviv, for all its openness, is a place that divides Arabs and Jews into us and them. It forces its Arab residents to conform, to speak the language of the majority. But in Amman, they can “live in Arabic” and meet Arabs from all over the Middle East.

At the concert, an exuberant Khader notes that Israeli Jews are always telling gay Palestinians that if they don’t like it in Israel, they should move to an Arab country and see how well they get along there. The implication being that Israel offers more freedom to gay Arabs than they could find in the Arab Middle East. Khader gestures at the rocking crowd, as the camera pans over straights and gays dancing and basically behaving as audiences at rock concerts tend to behave the world overr. Khader says, “Look at me! I’m in the middle of Amman, at a really hipster looking party, and I’m having a blast. What do you say to that?”

“Oriented” is an important, insightful and moving film. Unlike previous films made about gay Palestinians in Israel, it’s not about Jewish saviors trying to protect Palestinians from political or social repercussions. It’s about assertive young people who insist on their right to define their identity any way they want — and on the right to be confused, too. Tel Aviv is not doing them any favors by providing a more open environment to explore their sexual, social and political identities. It’s their country too.

“Oriented” will be screened at the Manhattan JCC on November 11 (Wednesday) at 6.30 pm