In a conversation revolving around internet activist groups in Israel, one of the protagonists of Oriented observes, ‘they tend to deal with the national issue rather than the social one. They focus on the national and put all other identities aside. But we have a lot of complex identities.’ Newcomer Jake Witzenfeld’s debut takes such complexities as its point of focus, turning a queer lens on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Oriented delves into the lives of three young gay friends living in Tel Aviv, whose identities are not only complicated by their sexual orientation, but also by the fact that they are Palestinians who have become citizens of Israel.
Approaching the political through the personal, the film follows Khader, Fadi, and Naeem, as well as their female friend Nagham, as they party and protest from Jaffa to Berlin. The handsome and charismatic Khader is out and proud, with a long-term Jewish boyfriend, David. He notes that the cross-cultural difficulties they experience range ‘from the biggest political arguments to the smallest relationship issues’, a description that is immediately borne out in the first scene that shows the couple: David observes that even as an Armenian immigrant (and thus a kind of outsider) he has never suffered the kind of ostracism that Khader faces as a Palestinian living in Israel. It is a genuine expression of care, but one that quickly and humourously devolves into a politically incorrect argument about whose ethnicity makes them better suited to do the dishes. Like Khader, the more pensive and serious Fadi is openly gay and accepted by his liberal parents. But he is plagued by doubt and guilt as he explores his attraction to a Jewish man who, unlike the leftist David, is a committed Zionist. Naeem, by contrast, has yet to disclose his sexual orientation to his more conservative parents, and on a visit home to the small northern Arab town of Kafer Yasif, they urge him to marry and to move back from Tel Aviv. In the course of the film Naeem begins the difficult process of coming out to his family.
Compiled from footage shot over a fifteen-month period, Oriented is primarily observational, offering little in the way of facts or statistics about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the queer community in Tel Aviv. While this makes it a very personable film – as the viewer is plunged right into the endearing group of friends – it also makes it occasionally difficult to understand what is going on, and easy to miss the nuances of conversations and events. The film would presumably have a much greater depth of meaning for an Arab or Israeli audience, especially one that could understand the mix of Arabic, Hebrew and English with which the friends communicate.
Perhaps because it is speaking into such a fraught political space, Oriented appears to be highly attuned to the pitfalls of representation that it’s liable to fall into. This is immediately apparent in a title that points to Edward Said’s notion of ‘orientalism’, a charge to which the film is laid open by the fact that its director comes from the West – Witzenfeld grew up in the UK and has only recently moved to Tel Aviv. As he is also straight and Jewish, Oriented is likewise wary of the dangers of Israeli ‘pinkwashing’, whereby Israel seeks to position itself as a queer-friendly refuge for Arabs who have been ostracised by their own allegedly intolerant cultures. But the film seems to caution against this interpretation in its opening sequence when Khader, Fadi and Naeem, who are getting ready for a party, make fun of the Israeli guests that might be coming to ‘save’ them. In terms of its politics of representation, then, Oriented is profoundly self-aware. And yet it is still worth considering whether its acknowledgement of these problems really equates to an avoidance of them.
As Khader, Fadi and Naeem negotiate the political divisions of the conflict amidst the trendy nightclubs and cafes of Tel Aviv, rather than the checkpoints of the West Bank, the idea of Palestinian identity also becomes a point of contention in the film. Khader, for one, seems inclined to make the kind of sweeping statements that some Palestinians could take issue with; in an address to the Tel Aviv LGBT union he announces his intention to ‘introduce a new Palestinian generation that you haven’t yet had a chance to meet.’ This is not to say that Khader’s national identity is less valid, but it is worth acknowledging that his experience is not representative. Showing greater caution and a more acute political sensitivity, Fadi questions whether he has the right to define himself as Palestinian, not having felt the occupation like someone living in Ramallah or Gaza. He demonstrates what Witzenfeld refers to as a kind of ‘Palestinian white guilt’.
If Khader and his friends are indeed part of a new generation of Palestinians, then it is one that is clearly embedded in a global millennial culture, of which nothing is more indicative than Khader’s propensity to stare at his iphone. He barely even looks away from the screen when the sirens go off in Tel Aviv during the hostilities that erupted in Gaza, mid-2014. While David’s dog, Otis, whimpers in fear, Khader only drops his disaffected façade for the few seconds that the blasts of the Iron Dome sound troublingly close. Although his response is indicative of an exasperation and fatigue with the interminable conflict, to the outsider, Otis’s reaction to the situation seems far more appropriate. And as members of Gen Y, it is no surprise that the political action of the friends tends towards a kind of facebook activism: they write online journalism and produce videos for YouTube. Witzenfeld was first alerted to the activities of the group through one of these videos, but unfortunately his attempts to use them to build a narrative into his film come across as a bit contrived. In any case, Oriented seems far less invested in the group’s explicit activism than it is in their potential to effect change through their everyday lives. And as much as the movie wants to avoid clichés, as a record of the lives of these vibrant and close-knit friends, it can’t help but entertain some hopeful ideas. Their friendships and romantic connections demonstrate that although categories of sexuality and nationality might not disappear, individuals are quite capable of moving across and between them, of living with complexities and thriving in grey areas.