These days, more and more Americans divide themselves across party lines and political predilections. Yet, few see these divisions as dividing—they see them as unifying: this is my identity, and these are the people who feel the same. Individual identity within a larger whole is one of the most desirable aspects of being human, and it is a topic cinema loves to explore. And not just explore but empower. Cinema doesn’t just give its subjects a voice, but an undeniable image as well.
That undeniable image is the driving force behind Oriented, a documentary about three gay Palestinian friends who use images—namely viral videos—to effect change during the Israel-Gaza Conflict in 2014.
The three subjects documentarian Jake Witzenfeld follows fit the bill perfectly and are open, candid, and honest to boot: Khader, the son of Muslim mafia now living with his Jewish boyfriend; Fadi, a Palestinian nationalist in love with an Israeli soldier; and Naeem, who has yet to come out to his family.
All three men are gay, in their mid-20s, and the eclectic port city of Jaffa offers cheap housing and a chance to move out from under the thumb of their conservative families. But gentrification has enflamed the delicate Arab/Israeli relations, and Khader, Fadi, and Naeem are caught in the middle. They try their best to understand, to communicate, and to educate. But mostly, they are trying to understand the men they are becoming.
That realization comes across clearest when Fadi falls for an American Jew fighting in the Israeli Defense Forces. Fadi speaks to Witzenfeld’s camera candidly, almost surprised that he is sleeping with the enemy. For Fadi, politics is a major, if not the major, aspect of his life. But Fadi is young, and the young are full of passion. Part of growing up is challenging that passion in the face of love and attraction. The heart wants what the heart wants, and Fadi’s somewhat shocked eyes are reminders of how jarring that realization can be.
While the issue of identity lies at the core of Oriented, the movie’s most fascinating aspect is its appeal as a piece of playful ethnography. These are not shy subjects, and they allow Witzenfeld to observe the less cinematic moments of their lives. Be it sitting around the living room silently checking their phones, early morning confession sessions where the pleasures of the night give way to the clear light of day, or simple unfocused conversations over beers on the way to, or coming back from, the nightclub. These moments don’t just color these individuals’ lives; they are crucial to defining them.
Directed by Jake Witzenfeld
Produced by Yoav Birenfeld, Ruth Cats, Jake Witzenfeld
Starring: Khader Abu Seif, Fadi Daeem, Naeem Jiryes
PICTURED, Not rated, Running time 86 minutes, Opened June 21, 2016.
A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 29, “The never-ending battle of identity.”