Sitting in the Green Room at JW3, the London Jewish Community’s cultural centre, a jetlagged Jake Witzenfeld, director of the documentary Oriented, ran his fingers through his hair and smiled. I had just asked him whether anything had surprised him about the struggle of Naeem, Fadi and Khader – the three young gay Palestinian subjects of his film – to define their complex identities. ‘Their eloquence overwhelmed me’ he said. ‘I wasn’t expecting them to be blabbering and upset the whole time, but their eloquence and their command when they spoke about these issues was really inspiring.’ With pride he told me that director and subjects had decided not to tell ‘another clichéd story of a Jew and an Arab in love.’ ‘I didn’t want to tell that story anyway, it’s been told many times before’ he added. This focus of his bold and important film lay elsewhere, in those places where the action is. ‘It is fascinating to see how people respond when you try to remix their settings,’ he said. ‘Some people become very uncomfortable, but others are inspired.’ I certainly was. (AJ)
Alan Johnson: Jake, let’s start with your own journey. You grew up in Essex, studied English at Cambridge, and now you make films in Israel. What’s your story?
Jake Witzenfeld: I grew up in Essex with a sense of the significance of Israel in my life. As I got older and went on more trips to the country I became more curious about my relationship with the place, and with some of the more difficult questions about Israel. At Cambridge University I soon changed to Middle Eastern studies and in my third year of studies I studied at the Hebrew University, ending up in the Tel Aviv production world. I knew I wanted to be involved in the debate about Israel’s cultural tectonic plates, so I returned to the country after I graduated. Then I came across these three amazing guys and ended up following them for two years and making a film about them.
AJ: This is your first major documentary?
JW: Yes, my first film!
AJ: Wonderful. Who have been the most important influences on the way you approach film-making?
JW: My favourite documentary is Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog because of his ability to tell an absurd story through a very personal narrative. I read about his methodology which involves allowing your subjects to guide you, rather than imposing a dogmatic agenda from the get-go. That has really informed my approach to film-making.
AJ: The film explores three personal narratives. We are drawn into the lives of Naeem, Fadi and Khader, young gay Palestinian men living in Tel Aviv struggling to define their own complex identity. I noticed that +972 website said that it was ‘the first film about gay Palestinian that is blissfully free from clichés.’ Why were you inspired to make a film about this subject?
JW: The subject came to me. I was knocking around Tel Aviv, having quit my job – I wanted to be a writer or director rather than fiddling around on excel spreadsheets – and I was writing and filming to build my portfolio. I came across the writing of Khader Abu Seif for Mako, an Israeli online publication, representing new voices of Palestinian citizens in the Tel Aviv LGTB centre. This identify was new to me: an Israeli citizen who identifies as a Palestinian, is homosexual and is vocally active, trying to make people aware of his identity. So I decided to meet him.
After he realised that I was straight and there were ulterior motives to my invitation, he was ok! He understood that my desire to capture his life though a film served his agenda and could make more people aware of his unique identity. The only caveat he placed on the film was that I should not tell another clichéd story of a Jew and an Arab in love. I didn’t want to tell that story anyway; it’s been told many times before. It was great fun to have Khader as a subject. We kept our narrative distance yet we were intertwined.
AJ: Was the film co-authored in that sense?
JW: 100 per cent. I couldn’t have done the film without him. The first people to see cuts of the film were the three guys, and they were the first people to give me feedback. We would never have put the film out had they not signed off on it. It was a truly collaborative process.
AJ: What did they think of the final cut when they saw it? Have their lives changed as a result of their new profile?
JW: I think with anyone, when your life is intimately portrayed right in front of you, you are going to cringe slightly! That is natural. But they have stood behind the film, are very proud of it, and have been willing to speak about it. Khadar has been jetting all over the world, using the film as a platform. Have their lives changed? We premier in Israel on 29 May, so next week is going to be very interesting.
AJ: The three men are gay, live in Israel, have Israeli passports and citizenship, but identity as belonging to the Palestinian people. The film explores their struggles to negotiate all this. What surprised you most about the ways in which they handled that struggle?
JW: Their eloquence. That overwhelmed me. I wasn’t expecting them to be blabbering and upset the whole time, but their eloquence and their command when they spoke about these issues was really inspiring
AJ: What techniques did you use to dramatise their double-bind identity on the screen?
JW: Luckily, I had three characters that didn’t need a lot direction in order to provide a juicy performance – whether the camera was on or off, to be honest. They were all pretty electric in their own special way. We shot 100 hours over two years and the key was making sure we didn’t miss the key moments in their lives. We had to balance the invasiveness of my camera with the needs of friendship and warmth. We became good friends even though we were going through some really intense moments. For example, when Naeem invited me to document the moment he came out, that was an overwhelming experience. When I first met Naeem he told me that he didn’t want to talk about his sexuality on camera. To go from that to driving him to his parents’ home to drop off a letter, and then staying with him that night and filming him, well, that was something special.
AJ: Is Tel Aviv a star of the film too?
JW: 100 per cent.
AJ: Were you aware of doing that?
JW: Yes, because I think that’s what we share. Khadar always said ‘You are an outsider in Israel too’. And he is right. Even though I speak good Hebrew, have a good understanding of the Israeli mentality and the way things work, I’m still always going to be perceived as a foreigner. And so are they, even though they are from there. I feel we have all chosen to be in Tel Aviv, so this film is also about my experience of the city. I feel more at home in Tel Aviv than I do anywhere else in the world.
AJ: The 2014 conflict in Gaza happened while you were shooting. How did you cope with that as a film-maker?
JW: We made a choice to inform the audience that the conflict was lurking in the background and to capture the way Tel Aviv citizens viewed it, which is ‘look, don’t look; look, don’t look’. We also tried to capture how the experience of war in Tel Aviv is seen by Palestinians under fire from other Palestinians. We also showed another reaction to conflict in Israel, which is to just run away, in this case to Berlin, to escape from the conflict. That is a typical Tel Aviv response when geopolitics steps in and ‘removes the headphones’, so to speak, that the city otherwise wears to protect itself from the conflict.
AJ: In one scene there is a rocket attack from Gaza and Khadar hears the explosion above as Israel’s Iron Dome knocks out a rocket. Is there a small ’p’ politics in that scene about the relationship between the Tel Aviv and the wider conflict?
JW: Not really. I put that scene in the film because it is the beginning of the end of the relationship of Khader and his Jewish partner David. But yes, the fact that it takes place in such a political background is fascinating. The overarching challenge of the edit of this movie was: How do I keep a focus on the personal despite the overwhelmingly political backdrop? You have footage that indicates this change in personal narrative, but it is during a war, so how can that not be ‘small-p’ political? But there was no soapbox statement that I was trying to make in that scene.
AJ: In another scene, we are taken to a club in Amman and as the camera pans over straights and gays dancing, Khader says, ‘Look at me, I am in the middle of Amman, at a really hipster looking party having a blast, what do you say to that?’ What did he mean by that?
JW: He is responding from a frustrated position to Israeli Jewish LGTB voices that have consistently said to him, when engaged in political conversation, ‘If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go to the rest of the Arab world and see how they will treat you there?’ I understand Khader’s frustration. Also, I found his gusto, in that moment, very interesting. It was a moment that I wanted to include in the film.
Look, Amman and the rest of the Arab world, is hardly a bastion of gay rights. (Israel outside Haifa and Tel Aviv is hardly a bastion of gay rights either, by the way.) So, maybe there is some self-delusion going on. We also see Khader at the LGTB centre telling an audience that BBC journalists have called him because they assume he has suffered, being a gay Palestinian living in Israel. But Khader says, ‘No, everything is fine, everything is cool and my family accept me and my boyfriend. You’re looking for the wrong Palestinian.’ Two scenes later, Khader is crying to Fadi’s mother about the fact that his father does not accept him. So there is this sense that Khader’s political activism, which is really a politics of self, comes from a very narcissistic politics. It’s about him on social media and him as a ‘diva’ who will stand out.
AJ: But that’s a very contemporary politics, a very western politics, that politics of self-expression.
JW: Absolutely. There is clearly a ‘fake it until you make’ attitude on Khadar’s part. He wants the Arab world to be a more liberal place. I say ‘good for him!’ From my experience in making the film there is an underground scene across the Arab world. LGBT is part of the forces that led to the Arab spring in 2011. And all credit to them. They should be proud, and they should ‘fake it until they make it,’ I think.
AJ: What are you anticipating will be the critical reception of the film in Israel when it opens?
JW: We have been teasing Israel. The film premiered a year ago, and we have been touring festivals and building a following. Already in Israel there have been two talking points.
One talking point is Fadi himself, who is not attending the Tel Aviv premier. He is boycotting his own film in his own city. He found out we were showing the film on the opening night of the TLVFest, the gay film festival of Tel Aviv, which starts a few days before Pride. Fadi felt his voice in the film would not be represented as trying to affect his community as the event was at a venue which is state funded, and is being promoted as part of the gay pride parade, which has 11 million shekels of public money this year, a huge amount of money in light of budget cuts.
Another talking point is the criticism we have received from an organisation based in Jerusalem that provides support for LGTBQ people in the West Bank. I was aware early on that the organisation was slightly fearful that my film was a case of ‘normalisation’. They published an article in which I was essentially accused of being a white, post-colonial, cultural imperialist who thought he was coming to save the indigenous man, presumably because the title of the film plays with the theory of Edward Said’s book Orientalism.
But look, the opening scene of the film is a jokey conversation between Khader, Naeem and Fadi about left-wing Israeli Jews thinking they are their ‘saviours’! The reason Fadi has given me his blessing to attend the film screening at TLVFest is because it is only when I cross the line and pose as a Palestinian activist, that this criticism of the film becomes just. But when I communicate this story to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences from my own cultural identity, then I don’t think the criticism is justified, because we are changing the Jewish Diaspora’s perspective, and Israeli perspective, on the Palestinian Other.
AJ: There is a danger that people take the legitimate concerns raised by Edward Said in Orientalism and end up losing touch with words like solidarity, empathy and hybridity. They get stuck in their cultural silos. The film is so fascinating precisely because refused that danger, I felt.
JW: 100 per cent. One of the things I have most enjoyed when talking to difference audiences is that the film evokes the grey, whilst everyone wants a comfortable black and white binary regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There is too much invested in our relationship with these black and white concepts; they mean too much to us. It is fascinating to see how people respond when you try to remix their settings. Some people become very uncomfortable, and others get really inspired. I agree with your analysis about Orientalism. Can no man make a film about a woman, no white man make a film about a black community, and no black man make a film about a white community? I hope to see more stories being made about the Jews by non-Jews. We know our own story too bloody well! I think cultural crossover, when it’s handled with sensitivity, is great.
AJ: What are you working on now?
JW: We are launching a web series in Tel Aviv in two weeks – a scripted, eight episode comedy –drama about digital dating. We have been commissioned to do an English language version in the United States at the end of the year. So things are exciting right now. And Oriented is available at iTunes from 21 June.
AJ: I hope people will look out for it there. Jake, it has been wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much for speaking to Fathom readers today.
JW: Thank you.