It was an LGBT-themed film festival held outside the borders of Palestine, featuring a number of works by directors who were neither gay nor Palestinian. But the first-ever Kooz Queer fest, which had a modest bow earlier this month in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, made little ripples of history in its own right. The tiny three-day fest, established by grassroots org Aswat-Palestinian Gay Women, and held across a handful of Haifa coffee shops and art venues, opened up a dialogue about the overlaps of occupation and sexuality; and of the borders of individual identity in the context of an uncertain international existence.

The goal of the fest: to provide a platform for home-grown, gay-themed films at a time when most LGBT Palestinians still feel a need to stay closeted.

Films made by, and about, gay Palestinians are few and far between. But the team at Aswat, inspired by similar grassroots festivals around the world, nevertheless felt the time was right to launch their fest.

“Most films talking about gay Palestinians are made by Israeli or Western eyes, and they don’t represent the real voice of Palestinians,” says Hanan Wakeem, Aswat’s educational project manager.

To that point, Israeli helmer Eytan Fox introduced gay Palestinian characters in his films “Walk on Water” (2004) and “The Bubble” (2006); Israeli Yariz Mozer made history in 2012 with his expose “The Invisible Men”; and British documentarian Jake Witzenfeld debuted his groundbreaking “Oriented,” about gay Palestinians living inside Israel, this past summer.

But Palestinian audiences have yet to encounter a successful full-length feature film on LGBT issues made by one of their own.

“Most films talking about gay Palestinians are made by Israeli or Western eyes, and they don’t represent the real voice of Palestinians.”
Hanan Wakeem

There are so few such works, in fact, that the dozen films in Kooz’s lineup featured only three made or co-made by Palestinians. One, “Condom Lead,” the Cannes-screened debut short from the Gaza-based Nasser brothers, deals intimately with straight sexuality, but doesn’t touch upon homosexuality at all. The other two were the short “Diary of a Male Whore” by Tawfiq Abu Wael; and full-length docu “Homecoming Queen,” in which a Jewish-Palestinian couple chart their personal experience traveling home from the debauchery of Stockholm drag shows and back to occupied Ramallah.

To supplement their material, Aswat turned to movies from Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and even the U.S. Despite the films’ diversity, they all circled around the same broad themes: sexuality, borders both real and relative, and the evolving presence of LGBT activism in the broader Arab world.

Wakeem describes the fest as a response to so-called Israeli “pinkwashing,” the term, often used by Palestinian advocates, to describe a deliberate Israeli strategy of promoting the Jewish state’s gay-friendly policies in a bid to turn attention away from the occupation.

The organizers of the San Francisco-based Outside the Frame film festival, which launched this past summer with the tagline “Queers for Palestine Film Festival,” echo Wakeem’s sentiments.
“What we were trying to show is that (the occupation) isn’t just an issue for Palestinians,” says Kate Raphael, one of Outside the Frame’s founders. “All queers should care about it, because it’s a human rights issue.”

Outside the Frame showed a number of Arab-made films, but none by Palestinians. Raphael says the reason may have been the fest’s demand that participating directors pledge not to show their work at Frameline, San Francisco’s respected and long-running annual LGBT fest.

The reason? As part of its funding, Frameline accepts money from the Israeli government.

Contacted for a statement, Frameline executive director Frances Wallace pointed out that her fest receives funding from a number of countries, and added, “Any funds Frameline receives are used to support and serve our mission and LGBT film arts programs.”

Outside the Frame has no plans for a repeat festival, but Wakeem hopes that Kooz will become an annual event. The pool of films is small now, she says, but it needs to grow.

“A lot of Palestinian queers live in the West Bank, and they want to stay there; they don’t want to move to Haifa or Tel Aviv,” she says. “We need to focus and encourage people to tackle these topics more, and not just talk about the obvious occupation and the relationship between Palestine and Israel.”