I sat down with Jake Witzenfeld, director of the forthcoming documentary Oriented, finishing its film fest tour in the UK and LA during the summer months.
It’s no news that Tel Aviv is the gayest city in the Middle East, and the daily struggle of the Palestinian youth – keeping their culture alive while being a part of Israeli society – is also exposed by the media. But there’s not much we know about the combination of the two issues: the life of the LGBTQ Israeli Arabs who, on one hand are longing for personal and national freedom, and on the other they are also fighting against the prejudice of their own culture. After the international success of Israeli “gay movies” like “The Bubble” and “Out In The Dark”, which raised questions about Palestinian queers, it was just a matter of time before a feature film would come out, presenting the “other side” of the story. Now, here it is on full blast.
Where were you born, where did you grow up, and what made you so interested in exposing stories about the Middle East?
I’m British. I grew up in Essex, later on spending some time in London and Cambridge. I began studying English Literature at University but quickly realized that if I was going to spend three or four years of my life immersed in studies, I’d rather focus on my own culture so I switched to Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Hebrew language and culture and developed the interest from there.
How come you decided to move here, and how did making films begin?
I was fascinated by the development of modern Hebrew culture in all its complexity and Tel Aviv as the stage of that story, so after finishing my degree I decided to move here. I was also attracted because I had a job offer in the local film production world and was in a relationship with a girl based here. While neither of those things lasted, my curiosity about this place did – along with my desire to tell stories about it.
Do you remember the first time the “gay Palestinians in Tel Aviv” topic as a subject to a film popped into your mind?
Yeah, I saw the first clip that Khader, Fadi and Naeem had made and was immediately intrigued about what this group of young people was saying. There identity struck me as deeply complex. I heard about a young Palestinian guy called Khader who was dating a Jewish Israeli guy for several years and asked him to meet me for drinks. As we threw ideas around, Khader began talking about a local “Arab Woodstock” and I began to understand that there was a much bigger story to tell here about these individuals, the complexity of their lives and a perceived national culture that was emerging.
It’s clearly an extremely delicate subject which everyone has an opinion about. Many people in very similar situations to your heroes don’t even call themselves Palestinians, but Israeli Arabs. Would you call this a political movie?
First and foremost, I would call this a human movie. It’s born out of an honest dialogue between myself as director and the three main “characters” looking to amplify their voices. During the first six months of shooting I definitely chased the political narrative: I thought I was capturing a movement for social change erupting. But then I realized that social change is much more about the small words, thoughts and actions of individuals who are infinitely more complex than any absolute political ideas that are projected on to them. So while their personal narratives definitely reflect the political landscape, the film deals directly with individuals rather than politics.
Congrats for all the international buzz around the film – tell me about the feedback.
It’s more than we imagined. We are about to premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest in the UK then in the US at the Los Angeles Film Festival, before heading to the East Coast for some press screenings in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Washington DC. Everyone that sees the trailer or has heard about the film seems very enthused so I think we have an exciting journey ahead.
Now that the boat is sailing towards the sea, how does it feel to look back at the past two intense years of making it happen?
It’s impossible to point out a solitary highlight after such a long and immersive process, but ultimately I have made three very dear friends and many memories with them.