When British director and producer Jake Witzenfeld discovered the video work of a group of gay men called Qambuta, or “cauliflower” in the local Arabic dialect, he was immediately riveted.
“Their voice was young, rebellious, proudly gay and Palestinian and it was emanating from Jaffa-Tel Aviv,” he told The Times of Israel. “This was an identity complex I’d never come across before and a new lens on an old story that I was keen to explore and revise.”
Planning to create his own film, Witzenfeld began shooting footage in January 2013. And in May of this year, he delivered a final cut of his debut pic, “Oriented.”
The film reveals the lives of three young men, all gay Palestinians exploring their sexual and national identities while war brews in June 2014. Abu Seif, conflicted by his desire for change in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation, is a Tel Aviv “darling” from a prominent Muslim mafia family living with his Jewish boyfriend, David. Fadi is an ardent Palestinian nationalist guilt-ridden with a Jewish love, and Naim must confront his family with the truth about his sexuality.
Witzenfeld, who is straight, hopes his 84-minute documentary will allow audiences to “understand the nuances of their identity complex,” he says. “Through that, I hope we can all acknowledge that if this conflict was as simple as two dichotomous world views then we’d probably have solved it by now.”
“Oriented” has not yet played in Israel, where it is expected to roll out in the coming months. It is slated to screen November 11 at New York City’s “Other Israel” festival, November 13 at Brussel’s Pink Screen, November 14 at LA’s Arab Film Festival. It screens at Hebrew Union College in New York on November 17 and at the IDFA in Amsterdam November 19 through 29 and in December at Amsterdam’s International Queer & Migrants Film Festival.
The film premiered in the UK at the Sheffield Doc Festival and in the US at the LA Film Festival in June. It also screened at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in Australia, and the DOK Leipzig, Germany, where it was nominated for the “Leipzig Ring” prize for films about democracy.
“Our distribution is very hands-on and grassroots at these early stages,” Witzenfeld says. Release at independent theaters in the US is slated for June 2016.
‘We are presenting a grey area in the middle, as well as a political and sexual stand, which the normative perception has a hard time dealing with’
“Oriented” has evoked mixed response from Arabs and Jews, Khader Abu-Seif told The Times of Israel.
“The reactions are parted only when it comes to Palestinians and Israelis who watched the film abroad, since we are presenting a grey area in the middle, as well as a political and sexual stand, which the normative perception has a hard time dealing with,” Abu-Seif says. “Local people have a hard time with the Palestinian definition and Palestinians have a hard time with the gender definition of us being gay.”
After he viewed Qambuta’s material on YouTube, Witzenfeld got in touch with Abu-Seif through his my flat mate at the time.
“We went for drinks, hit it off and after he invited me into his world where Fadi, Naim and Nagham were waiting for me. Through a very sensitive research phase of shooting, I become close with them all — both through the lens and away from the camera — and it was their stories that shone through.”
For Abu-Seif, appearing in the film as an openly gay man in Israel required that understanding.
“I agreed to participate in the film because the meeting with Jake went really well,” Abu-Seif told The Times of Israel. “It was nice to meet a young man, who understands the principals of the place I’m coming from, although he wasn’t born here. He was still an outsider like me, which made me feel much more comfortable to communicate with him and to agree.”
Press on the film has been “overwhelming,” Witzenfelds says. “We’ve been covered very widely and with humbling praise.”
Dazed & Confused magazine called it a “refreshingly candid and revelatory documentary.” Variety described it as “a uniquely Middle Eastern spin on a classic coming-of-age tale.”
“Thankfully all the feedback to date has been encouraging and inspiring and it is growing day by day,” Witzenfeld says. “Audiences have been expressing how refreshing this approach to a story from this region is and we are engaging communities across the world to license the movie to share in their local theaters and community centers.”
Another high point of releasing the film, Witzenfeld says, has also led to an surprising source of support for the cast.
‘Above all, the guys from the film have been receiving encouraging messages from elder members of their own Arab communities’
“Above all, the guys from the film have been receiving encouraging messages –sometimes through fake and anonymous social media profiles — from elder members of their own Arab communities encouraging them to keep up the bravery that they lacked or their generation didn’t permit,” he says.
“I didn’t realize how much the film would resonate with other LGBT sub-communities around the world who are faced with resistant laws or culture on who they want to be. We’ve had gay Jamaicans and Kenyans telling us that their parents’ generation need to see this so ‘they will understand,’” he says.
Still, having their stories appear on the screen has led to a mix of emotions for the cast.
“It’s strange to be featured in a film that’s playing around the world,” Abu-Seif says. “It’s scary and exciting at the same time, to think that hundreds or thousands of people know so much about your private life. That’s really stressful, but on the other hand enjoyable in the sense of sharing a secret or a known fact with the world, which not everyone knows.”
What’s up next for Witzenfeld? He is executive producing a web series that we’ll be launching in early 2016.
“It’s scripted and deals with the distance between our sexual egos and sexual reality through encounters between strangers who meet up after matching on a fake hook-up application designed to help us fulfill our fantasies,” he says. “We have a lot of other projects in development, both scripted and documentary, that we’ll be pushing forward in the coming months, and are also beginning to acquire films for distribution in North America, where we have started a distribution agency.”
Meanwhile, for Abu-Seif, “Oriented” also represents the beginning of something bigger.
“If you really, but really, want to change things, you should start somewhere,” he says, “no matter how hard that place is.”