Khader Abu-Seif is a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli citizen. He is also openly gay.
If these labels seem contradictory to you, then you’re exactly the kind of person freshman director Jake Witzenfeld hopes will see his first feature documentary, which stars Abu-Seif.
Witzenfeld hit the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest and the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this summer with “Oriented,” an intricate look at a group of friends in modern Israel for whom there is no box: They are gay, they are Palestinian, and neither their families in the villages they grew up in nor their hard-partying friends in the nightclubs of Tel Aviv can fully understand them. They are, as Abu-Seif says with a sly grin in the film’s trailer, “a new Palestinian generation, (one) you haven’t yet had a chance to meet.”
Maybe approaching the subject as an outsider added new perspective to the doc — Witzenfeld was born and raised in the U.K. — he grew up in Essex and went to Cambridge — and after graduation moved to Tel Aviv where he pursued his career as a director and producer.
Witzenfeld approached Abu-Seif two years ago with the idea of making a film about his life after stumbling upon a viral video Abu-Seif and his friends had made about gender and national equality in Israel and Palestine. At the time, Abu-Seif was in a relationship with a Jewish Israeli, and while he was quick to agree to have cameras follow him and his boyfriend around, he wanted to be sure that Witzenfeld’s film wasn’t going to fall prey to cliches.
“I said, ‘Listen, this story about the Jewish guy and the Palestinian guy is so overdone — so ’90s,’” Abu-Seif says over smoothies at a trendy vegetarian cafe in Tel Aviv.
“Let’s try something new — let’s put the focus on the Palestinians, on the people who define themselves as both gay and Palestinian inside of our community.”
The result puts a uniquely Middle Eastern spin on a classic coming-of-age tale. It follows three men: Abu-Seif, a self-defined “flirty diva chatterbox”; Fadi Daeem, a passionate Palestinian nurse juggling dual burdens of national identity and personal freedom; and Naeem Jiryes, a descendant of a small northern village who has yet to come out of the closet to his traditional family.
The trio are at once exceptional and entirely ordinary, and the film’s strength comes in documenting the trio’s quotidian struggles, such as the Palestinian nationalism that these friends feel, and their love for the hedonistic life in Jewish Tel Aviv.
Witzenfeld zooms in on breakfast table discussions and soulful car rides home, exposing a hidden corner of the Middle East. The director followed the trio for a year and a half, filming as tensions brewed in Israel in the run-up to last summer’s war with Gaza, and then continuing to roll as sirens blared and missiles rained down on Tel Aviv. The friends never felt self-conscious, they say, mainly because they accepted Witzenfeld as a buddy, but also because the majority of their dialogue is in Arabic, a language Witzenfeld does not speak.
“I was in the room, but I wasn’t really in the room,” Witzenfeld says of shooting those scenes. “I had to wait until I got a transcript and could go to work (editing). So in shooting, it was like they were in a bubble of sorts, and I was doing this synchronized dance where I was following body language or vibe.”
Witzenfeld funded the film himself, along with an Italian co-investor. In the coming months, he plans to launch a U.S. distribution shingle, Pictured, to handle the distribution Stateside, with the aim of licensing it directly to individual communities rather than doling out blanket rights, although no firm plans can be announced just yet.
It’s a film, both Witzenfeld and Abu-Seif say, that could be cut into a version that’s much longer than its 80-minute run time. Indeed, in its bows in Sheffield and Los Angeles, the post-screening discussions stretched longer, and were more heated, than the docu itself.
“I think a lot of people who saw the movie changed their minds about what it is to be a gay Arab and a gay Palestinian,” Abu-Seif says. “To anyone who wants to listen, I am ready to explain. Get out from your bubble, and let the funky Arabs open your mind.”