Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

HBO’s Oslo repeats predictable blind spots about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Illustration for article titled HBO’s Oslo repeats predictable blind spots about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Photo: HBO

It’s difficult to watch the film version of Oslo, the Tony Award-winning play by J.T. Rogers, without a sense of grim irony. No piece of art is objective; no work of fiction has the responsibility of sticking to every real-life fact. But the historical developments Oslo skips over in its discussion of what inspired the secret discussions between Israelis and Palestinians; the fear-mongering news footage it uses to pad out its runtime; and the side with which it aligns our perspective tip its hand toward a certain version of history that feels jarringly out of step with our current reality.

Advertisement

Oslo, which Rogers adapted from his own play, focuses on the covert negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that went on between 1992 and 1993. In December 1992, married Norwegian couple Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson), a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Terje Rød-Larsen (Andrew Scott), a sociologist and director of the Fafo Foundation think tank, decide to insert themselves into the Israeli-Palestinian talks already taking place with U.S. involvement. Because it is against Israeli law for a member of the Israeli government to meet directly with a PLO representative, and because PLO leadership, including chairman Yasser Arafat (never seen onscreen in the film), were then based out of Tunisia, two years of negotiations under American eyes have resulted in little progress.

So Terje and Mona, inspired by a disastrous visit they took to the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip some years before, decide to set up a secret negotiation process. Their goal is to get both sides to the table without any international involvement, and Terje and Mona will only facilitate, Mona insists, not actually get involved in the substance of the negotiations. (A flaw of the film’s script is how generally it refers to the talks as an effort to find “peace,” which creates some confusion regarding the specific details of what each side actually wanted and received.) After Terje and Mona cajole and convince, both sides send representatives to Norway’s Borregaard Manor: University of Haifa professors Yair Hirschfeld (Dov Glickman) and Ron Pundak (Rotem Keinan), and PLO Minister of Finance Ahmed Qurei (Salim Daw) and liaison Hassan Asfour (Waleed Zuaiter). These four men walk into a ballroom to try and hammer out a declaration of principles that will be accepted by both the Israeli government and the PLO. Meanwhile, Terje and Mona hover like school dance chaperones on the other side of the door and struggle to maintain neutrality.

It’s not easy to generate interest from people arguing at a conference table, but Tony Award-winning theater director Bartlett Sher, making his film debut, incorporates a few visual flourishes. Once the talks reach a higher level and Israel sends in Uri Savir (Jeff Wilbusch), director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sher’s camera tracks Savir as he paces around the table, capturing this locked room’s claustrophobic tension. Also effective is the film’s lighting, which is sometimes so overblown that it smears characters’ faces and allows us only to hear their voices, a purposefully theatrical element to underscore the importance of what is being said, rather than who is saying it. Those moments punctuate what is otherwise a generic tableau that doesn’t take full advantage of the fact that Oslo has jumped from stage to screen.

The meat of Oslo, rather, is the clandestine talks and the men leading them, and to Rogers’ credit, he doesn’t limit his characters to mouthpieces but also incorporates dialogue that hints at their personalities. The film’s best scenes include the representatives tentatively stepping toward some sort of common ground, from Hirschfeld and Qurei’s stilted-yet-polite conversation about the cold weather to Hassan’s gleeful face when he tastes Norwegian waffles. The mercurial Daw and Zuaiter are the cast’s most impassioned members, and the film’s funniest moment might be the latter’s indignant rejection of small talk: “The petty bourgeoisie construct of family does not interest me. The struggle against the Western capitalist behemoth, that is my father.” The script’s other intentional jokes, like the Norwegian chef’s suggestion that she serve pork to the Jewish and Muslim delegations, aren’t nearly as satisfying.

But the strength of the ensemble cannot make up for the script’s failure to place the drafting of the Oslo Accords within the greater context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the film’s tendency to provide humanity to only one side. Oslo skips over the reasons for the Palestinians’ five-year-long First Intifada that led to these talks, doesn’t address general Palestinian sentiment that doubted whether the Israeli government would accept a two-state solution, and fails to truly emphasize that the Oslo Accords were meant to be a first step toward peace—not the end-all, be-all. The film’s concluding intertitles are impressive in what they leave out about the cause of the Second Intifada, or about the Israeli government’s walking back of various elements of the Oslo Accords, in particular regarding their control of the Gaza Strip. Viewers who don’t know any of this might be left with a narrow impression shaped primarily by the news footage Sher chooses to pad out the film’s length (Palestinians burning an Israeli flag, throwing rocks, and chanting in Arabic—all actions that the film presents as existing in a vacuum) and the flashback to Mona’s time in Gaza that provides interiority to an Israeli soldier, but not to a Palestinian teenager killed by Israel Defense Forces.

Advertisement

What results is a very Western-specific view of this conflict and of the Oslo Accords that doesn’t embody the “both sides” approach the film ostensibly intends to provide. The obligations of a fictional film are not the same as a documentary. But when Oslo so defines itself on giving each oppositional force its own platform, it’s a noticeable disconnect when the film’s surrounding elements, like that B-roll news footage and the way we relive Mona’s memory, instead push a particular point of view that doesn’t feel equal at all. After weeks of Western news coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has skewed toward diminishing the devastation and death wrought by the Israeli military upon hundreds of Palestinians, including dozens of children, Oslo feels like another component of a seemingly predetermined narrative.

When Rogers’ Oslo premiered on Broadway in 2016, it followed the playwright’s other works set in war zones, including The Overwhelming, about an American family coming to grips with the Rwandan genocide, and Blood And Gifts, about the power struggle over Afghanistan in the 1980s. According to a transcript of the Laura Pels Keynote Address he gave during the 2008 annual meeting of the theater organization A.R.T./New York, Rogers said of his approach to topical theater, “I had to start learning more—much more—so that I could tell stories that dig under the surface of people and cultures that seem deeply foreign—even scary—to me and find the connections between us. To try and understand what those connections mean.” In Oslo, Mona seems to serve as Rogers’ mouthpiece when she asks, “If we do not sit across from our enemies and hear them and see them as human beings, what will become of us?” That is a well-intentioned statement, but not one fully representative of what Oslo ends up being: a film dotted with the same cultural blind spots that compromise so many Western-made analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And at this moment, those blind spots don’t feel quite as entertaining.

Advertisement