The dramatic escalation we have witnessed in Gaza and Israel recently underscores once again that the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993 in no way resolved this protracted and brutal conflict. Thus, it is first and foremost sad that the timing of the HBO movie Oslo, which tells about the secret negotiations that led to the first agreement, is so good. Some will probably also think that the timing for such an uncritical presentation of this process is anything but good.
The feature film is based on JT Rogers' play of the same name, which premiered in 2016 and later became an award-winning Broadway success. In 2019, Oslo also listed in Oslo. Rogers is responsible for the adaptation of the screenplay, whose playing time has been about an hour shorter than the play. Directed by Bartlett Sher, who also directed the first stage production. It was also Sher who introduced the playwright to his friend Terje Rød-Larsen in 2012, and with that facilitated the play's conception. Hardly as intended, but possibly not entirely different from how Rød-Larsen and his spouse Mona Juul, who was then head of FAFO and bureau chief at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, arranged the so-called back channel that led to the two Oslo agreements (from 1993 and 1995).
This type of political process may not be an obvious theme for audience-wide stage performances. Nevertheless, Rogers has also written pieces about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Rwanda. And it should be said that people with conflicting interests such as conversations in closed rooms are also not a particularly unsuitable premise for theatrical drama.
With a lot of dialogue and a limited number rentals, carries the film version of Oslo character of having originally been written for the theater. But this is also in line with the events the film depicts. However, certain cinematic moves have been made, the most obvious of which are the somewhat sticky ones flashback'one to dramatic events Juul and Rød-Larsen witnessed in Gaza. Although the experiences they portray serve a dramaturgical function as the couple's motivation to initiate the talks between representatives of Israel and the PLO, had Oslo probably been a just as good movie without showing this as a flashback.
"One can accuse Oslo of being a naive film – as one can possibly also claim
that the process it deals with was naive. "
The play has been criticized for undeservedly praising Juul and Rød-Larsen for their efforts in this process – which possibly turned out to be a mistake, and at least did not give the results one could hope for. The same objections can be directed at the film, which to a large extent praises both the agreement in general and these individuals in particular.
Oslo should of course not be seen as a historically correct rendering of these negotiations, this is after all a dramatization. The action is also limited to what took place until the first Oslo agreement was signed. As is often done in movies and TV series, these events are staged with actors who have a certain physical resemblance to the people they portray – led by Ruth Wilson (T) and Andrew Scott (Fleabag) as the Norwegian couple. There is little to complain about the actor's performance, which this type of dialogue-driven chamber play is largely based on.
I recommend watching the film with Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan's documentary The Oslo Diaries from 2018, which is available on NRK TV until the end of August (with Norwegian title The Oslo agreement behind the doors). Unsurprisingly, the documentary provides a more comprehensive picture of the same events – including the consequences of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu's subsequent takeover, for the ultimately failed peace process.
I The Oslo Diaries Juul and Rød-Larsen are hardly mentioned, which is perhaps to take it a little far in the opposite direction of the feature film. Nevertheless: Where many will probably experience the emphasis in Oslo of individuals and their nascent friendships during the negotiations, which are more or less "Hollywood", it is worth noting that the documentary also emphasizes the interpersonal aspects of the process. It should not be underestimated that this form of individualization is both a strength and a weakness in cinematic renditions of political events, but precisely meeting the opponent face to face and getting to know each other as human beings seems to have been an essential part of what actually unfolded around this negotiating table.
With his description of individuals with unshakable belief in achieving the seemingly impossible, one can, however, accuse Oslo to be a naive film – as one could possibly also claim that the process it deals with was naive. It has been held against the agreement that it exposed key issues and did not take into account the imbalance in the power relationship between the parties, and these sides do not necessarily emerge clearly in the film.
That the Oslo agreement did not create peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians can hardly be clearer than it is at the time of writing. Oslo does contain some concluding text posters about the discouraging further development in the conflict, but the film first and foremost seems to want to recreate the feeling of hope that lay in the eventually missed opportunity. That hope may of course need to be revived now – and perhaps it is timely to be reminded that the first step towards ending a war is to constantly sit down and talk to the other party. But in light of what we see unfolding today, this film unfortunately feels as much like naive escapism.
Oslo is now available
on HBO Nordic.