LA Film Fest Review: Oriented, by David Bax
In the interest of simplicity, we often tend to discuss minority groups as if they are homogenous. Black people go in one group, gays in another, Muslims in another and so on. Jake Witzenfeld’s documtanry, Oriented, by focusing on the lives of three gay Arab men living in Israel, shows us how personal identity and political identity are far more complicated and often far more conflicted than we tend to think.
Oriented’s three subjects – Khader Abu Seif, Fadi Daeem and Naeem Jiryes – display a wide variety of identities even within the film’s established framework. Fadi’s family accepts and loves him for who he is. Khader is out to his family but no longer speaks to his father. Naeem remains closeted to his parents and siblings. Their Arab affiliations are not uniform either. Khader cohabitates with his Jewish boyfriend while Fadi resolutely states that he could never date a Jew. Still, the three are close friends, often cooking and eating together – it’s fascinating what documentaries often inadvertently reveal; here it’s a window into the culinary offerings of Tel Aviv. They even name their production company after a type of cauliflower.
The videos made by these three and their friends are vignettes set to popular music, often depicting images that seem mild to our Western eyes but that flirt with scandal here. An Arab woman smoking a cigarette behind her black veil, men wearing dresses, etc. These images are abstract companions to Witzenfield’s more straightforward dialecticism.
Despite the attempts on the part of both the audience and the subjects to clearly define the identities of these three men, what resonates are the constant complications. How can they enjoy the acceptance of the Israeli left when those leftists assume they get to define what acceptance means? How can Fadi keep up his vow against dating Jews when he’s falling in love with one? And how long can these discussions of queer identity be kept up before the sirens go off and you have to hunker down in the bathroom hoping the sound of explosions doesn’t come too near?
Solutions, like categorizations, are easier to prescribe than to undertake. To those of us who have the luxury of simplification, it seems obvious that Naeem should come out to his parents. But, as a human being, Naeem is more than just his sexual orientation. Coming out means giving up things about himself that he holds dear. It would be a process of death as well as one of liberation. The best solution Khader can come up with to his crises is to leave Tel Aviv for Berlin, where he can at least just be a gay guy, not a gay Arab guy. In the end, though, he can’t give up the city that’s become his true home.
By the time Oriented is over, life is different but not necessarily better (or worse) for Khader, Fadi and Naeem. Yet – and this may be cold comfort – their struggles and joys have an impact on the world around them. In the grand scheme, simply being who they are is perhaps more important than anything they do.