The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging for my entire life. So many words have been written about it that any more seem pointless. Making a movie about the situation almost feels inappropriately trivial–this is not a case of the “too soon” we often say about movies based on recent tragic news. It’s not too soon, because the conflict is ongoing. In the midst of such a conflict, can any film be made that isn’t propaganda? Or at best, a vast oversimplification?
But Oslo, which premiered Saturday on HBO, mostly refutes such criticism. The film, adapted by J.T. Rogers from his play of the same name, has been released amid one of the worst flares of violence and tension in the ongoing conflict. Its timeliness imbues the subject matter with a weight that is almost hard for the viewer to bear. That discomfort is, in fact, exactly what the movie intends, and rightfully so. There are no easy answers to the unrest between these two peoples. Oslo does not pretend there are. It asks us to sit with the ambiguity, and offers no way out of it.
The film, based on real events, tells the story of a secret back channel between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1990s. While public talks, supported by the United States, were ongoing–and accomplishing little–a Norwegian diplomat and her husband convinced the finance minister of the PLO to attend a meeting with an Israeli academic. The meeting was intended to introduce the concept of a shared humanity between the enemies. It worked.
The couple–Mona Juul, a diplomat played with understated intelligence by Ruth Wilson, and Terje Rød-Larsen, a sociologist portrayed by Andrew Scott with a hint of the frenetic energy he brought to Sherlock as Moriarty–sees the humanization of the conflict as its only hope of resolution. They were caught once, while stationed in the middle east, in a skirmish in Gaza. They were personally in danger, but what they most took from the experience was the memory of a young Israeli soldier and a young Palestinian protester who saw themselves in each other and lowered their weapons. Mona, in particular, witnessed this moment of connection and she is determined to act in that spirit.
Further meetings are set up in Norway, at a mansion staffed, as far as we can tell, by only two people. The PLO official–Ahmed Qurei (Salim Dau), called Abu Alaa by his friends, and eventually by most of the characters in the film–has brought along another PLO official, Hassan Asfour (Waleed Zuaiter). They are unceremoniously crammed into a tiny car and driven to the mansion with no further information. No security, no protocol… it feels off-balance, and the characters feel off-balance because of it. But it works to force everyone away from the stilted and unproductive “diplomacy” they’re used to.
Larsen insists that outside of the negotiation room, those present–two Israelis, two Palestinians, two Norwegians, and the two mansion staffers–will act as friends, eating together, speaking together, and generally bonding. Alone in the remote house, there’s little choice. It’s a delicate process of starts and stops–slowly easing into an exchange of jokes, which in turn leads to a fight when a joke is offensive, which is then diffused by the shared enjoyment of waffles with cream for dessert. (Food, as always, is something that brings people together.) Enough progress is made that there is an agreement to meet again–though Qurei insists that the Israeli team receive an upgrade to people who actually represent the government.
Thus we meet Uri Savir (Jeff Wilbusch), an Israeli senior diplomat. He’s a whole different animal from the scruffy and avuncular college professor who was Qurei’s first contact, and at first his cold arrogance is off-putting. We find, though, that much of this is put on for effect, because once he’s assured of the seriousness of his PLO negotiating partners, he’s completely on board. He chooses, quite intentionally, to begin referring to Qurei by his more familiar name, Abu Alaa. These men form a relationship over the course of their meetings that is never easy, but always honest. In one quiet moment, they watch a news broadcast of the violence taking place back home, and both are helpless with grief, spurred anew to find peace as soon as possible.
The film is structured so that every meeting adds a new element–first Savir, then Joel Singer, the Israeli legal advisor, a man known–and despised–by the PLO. Next Shimon Peres gets involved. Interestingly, while the back channel increasingly climbs the hierarchy of the Israeli government, we discover that Qurei, who has always claimed to be taking his direction from Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, is lying about his constant calls to Arafat. The Israeli delegation grows throughout the meetings; the PLO delegation remains only Qurei and Hassan Asfour.
However, when agreement, at long last, is reached, Arafat is there. The movie ends, more or less, with footage of President Bill Clinton overseeing the signing of the 1993 Oslo I Accord by Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin of Israel and Arafat, a historic moment.
The Norwegian diplomats are always around, in the background, facilitating this process. It was their idea, but they cannot be involved in the discussions. On the one hand, this is because all of it is off the record and could get the Norwegian government in seriously hot water internationally. But on the other, it’s because Mona believes there’s no way for non-Israelis and non-Palestinians to reach an agreement on behalf of those embroiled in ongoing anger and violence. The desire for peace must come from those at war–otherwise no peace will hold.
Mona’s voiceover as she writes her final report demonstrates this sad reality, that the flames of hatred are hard to quench, even when that hatred is killing innocent people. As she writes of her fear that the peace process will face passionate objection, the film tells us of the assassination of Rabin two years later, a consequence of his pushing for the accord. It tells us that at Camp David in 2000, the two sides met to finalize all outstanding issues, and could not reach agreement. Mona finishes by saying that regardless of the outcome, the process was worth it.
That’s cold comfort when we are left with the reality of today’s ongoing conflict. Nevertheless, Oslo is well worth a watch. It’s beautifully shot, using light to extraordinary effect. While adapted plays can be static, director Bartlett Sher works around this by giving us a sense of space in the high-ceilinged, cavernous rooms the characters work in, and allows a bit of humor here and there to relieve pressure. The acting is uniformly fantastic, and the writing is even-handed, trying its best to take no side in the conflict while allowing both factions to state their case for hating the other. The reasons are human, and as such are relatable even to their enemies, if their enemies will only try to listen.
“You are on our side,” Qurei tells Mona at one point.
“And on theirs,” she replies.
She believes that people ultimately must solve problems that politics can’t. All we can hope is that she’s right.