Oriented: “We Are Palestine, We Are Queer, We Are Here!

Oriented, directed by British documentarian Jake Witzenfeld, centers around the lives of three Palestinian gay men living in Tel Aviv – Fadi, Khader and Naeem – as they seek personal fulfillment in their own lives and relationships while navigating Israeli discrimination and challenging intra-Palestinian homophobia and misogyny.

Touring the U.S. this season (more details below), Oriented comes out against the backdrop of increasingly fraught LGBTQ politics on Israel and Palestine. Last month, for instance, LGBTQ activists booted the pro-Israel, gay organization A Wider Bridge from a national gay rights conference in Chicago and disrupted its nearby reception with an unfurled banner proclaiming “Free Palestine! … Cancel Pinkwashing!”

For Palestinian queers and solidarity activists, the alleged instrumentalization of Israel’s relatively progressive record on gay rights for the reported purpose of excusing, or even passively justifying, the occupation is “pinkwashing” par excellence. The point is, while Israel (or, more accurately, some quarters in Israel), is gay friendly and its laws protect LGBTQ rights more so than, say, Turkey or Jordan; gay rights on paper do not tell the whole story and cannot be separated from other rights.

“Pinkwashing” campaigns, for instance, often present Israel as a safe haven for gay Palestinians; but Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot benefit from Israel’s gay rights, which are civil rights denied to occupied Palestinians. To attend Tel Aviv’s Pride celebrations, for example, Palestinians would need a visa from the Israel Defense Forces, which is loath to hand them out. Moreover, Palestinians who have Israeli partners often find it near impossible to acquire a residency visa, as dramatized in the Israeli film In the Dark about an Israeli-Palestinian love affair in Tel Aviv. And as Michael Kagan and Anat Ben-Do (Tel Aviv University) relay in their report Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel,

Brutal repression of homosexuality by a wide array of actors in Palestinian society puts an unknown number of people at risk, and represents an important violation of human rights for people living in the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, Israel prohibits these people from even filing asylum applications, simply because of their nationality. […]  

Were these people not Palestinians, or if they fled somewhere other than Israel, they might find a safe haven with less difficulty. But as Palestinians, the most accessible country to which they can run is often Israel, where they are seen as a security and demographic threat.

For gays and lesbians under the boot of a military occupation regime, championing their right to love freely while denying them every other freedom strips the former of any tangible meaning and potential. And, as gender and sexuality scholar Maya Mikdashi relates, “One is tempted to call the production of such a narrow and reductive framework through which queers are to become politically legible an exercise in homophobia.”

In so many words, “pinkwashing” tells gay Palestinians, Mikdashi argues, “you have the right to love and have sex with whomever you choose safely and without discrimination, but you do not have the right to be un-occupied, or to be free from oppression based on your political beliefs, actions, and affiliations. . . . If you are being oppressed by Israeli colonial policies, you’re on your own.”

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Fadi, Khader and Naeem are not occupied, but make up the roughly 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians. Rather than standing in checkpoints manned by armed conscripts, they’re sometimes obliged to listen to the patronizing lectures of self-styled Israeli liberals who think Palestinians should be grateful for less-than-equal citizenship simply because, they contend, it’s worse elsewhere in the Middle East. In one scene, Khader relates he’s often told if you don’t like it here, go to Jordan and see how they treat gay people. As he looks around the hipster concert in … Amman, Jordan, he says with a smirk well, here I am.

The trio of friends shy neither from Israeli discrimination nor Palestinian homophobia: They are proud and expressive of their culture, live openly as a right in their homeland and not a privilege bequeathed by their conqueror, and they need no caveats in their identity as gay Palestinians. They remind us that gay rights and queer liberation are not discrete causes, but only realize their full potential within a broader securement of individual and collective rights.

In their words and videos, Khader, Fadi and Naeem present an aspiration that transcends conventional and restrictive national, gender and sexual boundaries; and they do so with great humor and often stunning stages performances (they run a production company called Qambuta). And Witzenfeld’s Oriented, an incredibly lucid and engaging documentary, has made a great contribution to the growing discussions and debates on queer politics and Palestine.


Palestine Square recently spoke to Witzenfeld:

Why Fadi, Khader and Naeem? How did they end up the focus of your documentary? 

I did not know Fadi, Khader or Naeem beforehand. Khader was making noise in Tel Aviv as a local personality with a lot to say and I reached out to meet him. After he made it clear that he was not interested in a co-existence piece about him and [his Israeli partner] David (a position I fully agreed with), he was very open and let me and my camera into his world. That’s how I met Fadi and Naeem. It was their close friendship and shared identity complex that compelled me to focus on the three of them specifically. Regarding their trust, the spirit of this project was collaborative from the get-go, which immediately removes a big layer of mistrust. We genuinely become very fast-friends and I think that the time we spent together without the camera was as important to the film as the experiences I recorded.

Can you tell us about your background and why you decided to do this documentary? 

I am 27 years old. I was born in England, the fourth and fifth generation of Jewish families who immigrated to England from Eastern Europe. I was raised with an appreciation of my tradition and my community. I discovered Tel Aviv at the age of 18 – spending some time there before I went to university back in the U.K. to study Middle Eastern Studies. I decided to do this documentary because Khader, Naeem and Fadi showed me an entirely new perspective. I was very tired of the Jewish Diaspora’s position on Israel-Palestine, the global Palestinian solidarity campaign’s position on Israel-Palestine, the academy’s position on Israel-Palestine… It all felt like very calculated political mud-throwing without any genuine desire for progress.

The boys’ lives felt first-and-foremost human and real and of our time. They deeply inspired me and I wanted to share that experience.


Who is the target audience?

The film is for whoever expresses an interest in this topic and chooses the watch it. The film has important work to do in shifting global Jewish perceptions of “the Palestinian.” I also believe the film questions the Palestinian Israeli citizens’ place within Israel and within the global Palestinian community. Further, I think the film speaks volumes to anyone from the LGBTQ community facing resistance in their city, country or culture.

Are you trying to break the gay nationalism of the mainstream gay groups in Israel?

I will say that by focusing on Qambuta and it’s creators – Khader, Naeem and Fadi – Oriented certainly provides a counter-narrative to the gay nationalism of Jewish LGBTQ groups in Israel and challenges what Khader describes as a “monopoly on liberalism” that both the West and Israel have taken. I just wanted to amplify the boys’ voice and introduce audiences to the complexity of it.


What do you make of their criticism that racism toward Palestinians cannot be mitigated solely by a pro-gay rights policy? 

We need to separate the issues: gay rights in Israel and racism towards Palestinians in Israel. The State of Israel’s queer politics is more complex than the pink washing agenda. While Tel Aviv and Haifa are bastions of liberal values for all their residents, there is work to be done both legally and culturally to make the rest of the State of Israel a welcoming place for all its citizens – Jewish, Palestinian and beyond – of all sexual orientations.

Regarding racism towards Palestinians in Israel, the problem is Jewish-Israeli fear of any national identity that isn’t Israeli. It has nothing to do with the pro-gay rights policy, which only affects citizens in the metropolitan city centres. Israeli civil society has not matured to a point of confidence that it is comfortable enough to let its passport holders define themselves as Jewish, Palestinian, Eritrean, whatever. That must change. The jury is out on what role Khader and the Palestinian LGBTQ movement in Israel will play in both affecting a better gay rights policy across the country and in affecting change in Jewish attitudes towards Palestinians.

While Khader’s in Berlin he appears to indirectly reference the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS) when expressing his belief that activism from the outside may be more effect than working within Israel. What do you make of his assessment?

Until reading this question, I never thought that Khader’s belief has anything to do with BDS. I still don’t. It’s always fascinating to see what direction different audiences choose to take the film. I can’t answer your question directly because I don’t think that we share an agreement on what “his assessment” is. My assessment of that scene is that Khader sees a broader cause: the visibility of the Arab LGBTQ movement on the world stage. This is distinct from the rights and position of the Palestinian LGBTQ movement in Israel. Khader certainly has an interest in the strengthening of pan-Arab LGBTQ visibility and I think this scene and that moment in Khader’s life was much more about where he sees himself playing a stronger role. I also think it’s as personal as it is political: he is tired of life in Tel Aviv, tired of his relationship and ready for something new.

Oriented is a grand testament to the medium’s potential in capable hands. They are no title screens, talking heads, or graphics. Not at all didactic. We learn so much from the conversations and it never loses steam. How did you go about editing it?

I worked with an incredibly talented editor, Nili Feller. After reviewing the footage too many times, we built the film around the three boys’ personal journeys. Originally, we wanted there to be a fourth narrative: [their friend] Nagham’s. Unfortunately we didn’t have the footage to make that a cohesive story but, regardless, I believe Nagham has the strongest lines in the film and is a consistent voice of reason.


Looking forward, do you see potential within the gay community in Israel to recognize Palestinian stories, like the one you’ve told, and incorporate them into the larger narrative?

Yes, absolutely. We cannot wait to release the film in Israel in May-June of this year. I also think that individuals and groups, like those featured in the film, are already changing the larger narrative in that direction. I also see potential for Oriented to play a role in LGBTQ rights movements outside of Israel and Palestine.

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Oriented will be screened, inter alia, in Denver on 21 Feb., Cincinnati on 24 Feb.,  San Francisco on 27 Feb.; and at the DC International Film Festival in Washington, D.C., on 6 March, where the Institute for Palestine Studies will be co-sponsoring a panel discussion on the film. For more locations and tickets (including international screenings), click here.

Introduction and interview by Khelil Bouarrouj.

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