Film Review: A war of words

Hani Mustafa , Monday 9 Aug 2021

Reviewing the latest American production on Palestine: Oslo, produced and broadcast by HBO


Many films have been made about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since the 1948 Nakba, documentaries especially. With few exceptions, until the early 1990s they were produced by Palestinian or Arab companies. That is because the Palestinian cause was not on the agenda of international producers until the last quarter of the 20th century, when a new wave of Palestinian filmmakers – Michael Khelifi, Rashid Masharawi, Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu-Assad – began to tell deep human stories in tandem with rising global solidarity following the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987.

As of that time, both fiction and documentary features dealing with the drama and suffering of Palestinians have been coproduced by Western countries.

One recent example of this is Oslo, produced and broadcast by HBO. Initially a Broadway play written by J. T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher which won the Antoinette Perry Award (commonly known as the Tony Award), the duo later adapted it into a film for TV. It is the story of a Norwegian couple involved in hosting and facilitating the backchannel talks between the PLO and Israel that led to the signing of the Oslo Accord.

The film opens with Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson), a top employee in the Norwegian foreign ministry, calling her husband Terje Rød-Larsen (Andrew Scott), who directs the Fafo Foundation, in Jerusalem. He is about to attend a meeting in the Old Town with Yossi Beilin (Itzik Cohen), the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel. Later, Mona meets Ahmed Qurei (Salim Dau), the PLO Minister of Finance, in a hotel in London – across the street from the building where the official peace talks are being held after the 1991 Madrid Peace conference, in which the PLO was not allowed to participate.

To explain the couple’s motives, the film shows previous experience of the conflict. Both husband and wife used to work in the Occupied Territories. A black-and-white image of Mona moving through the wreckage of homes to the sound of the Intifada precedes the opening, recalling World War II footage and soliciting sympathy with Palestinian civilians.

In another scene, Mona and Terje attempt to break up a clash between a young Palestinian and Israeli soldiers. As the dialogue between Rød-Larsen and Beilin shows, a backchannel is necessary because Israeli officials are not allowed to talk to PLO members. The Americans, Beilin says, should not be made aware of the new peace initiative at the beginning.

The backchannel meeting is held in a remote mansion on the outskirts of Oslo, attended by Ahmed Qurei and his liaison Hassan Asfour (Waleed Zuaiter) as well as Yair Hirschfeld (Doval’e Glickman) and Ron Pundak (Rotem Keinan), professors at the University of Haifa. The script gives the characters little detail, presenting Asfour as a Marxist ideologue in contrast to Qurei, a flexible negotiator ready to make painful compromises; the two professors, by contrast, are humble ordinary people happy but confused to be speaking to a top PLO official.

Reaching an agreement whereby Israel, by leaving Gaza to the PLO, could end the Intifada, was an unprecedented achievement, and led to Beilin assigning Uri Savir (Jeff Wilbusch), the Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry to head the negotiating team.


What seemed disappointing to Qurei and Asfour during the second round of negotiations was that each time the negotiations started anew, as if the Israeli strategy was to exhaust the Palestinians. The third round was even tougher, conducted by Joel Singer (Igal Naor), the legal advisor to the Israeli government, focusing on the legal terms of the Declaration of Principles.

Although the subject of negotiations might be boring, the film manages to keep the audience preoccupied through suspense. Perhaps it tries to be as close as possible to reality, showing how Palestinian officials and Israeli civilians were more enthusiastic about reaching an agreement than Israeli officials. Hirschfeld runs out and asks Mona to interfere when the discussion reaches a dead end during the third round, for example. Although she asks her husband to make a promise before starting this operation, telling him to keep repeating “we will facilitate and facilitate only”, she couldn’t help becoming personally involved.

It is clear that the film is influenced by its theatrical source as much of the drama unfolds indoors, but trying a little too forcefully to set Oslo and Jerusalem apart, giving outdoor scenes a respectively cool and warm hue, the cinematography feels somewhat in-your-face and inaccurate, since Jerusalem is not as dusty or yellow as some other parts of the Middle East.

In Oslo, the acting might be described as a strong point thanks to accomplished actors with personality. Dau is a famous for his roles in theatres; last year he received much recognition in film festivals and won the best actor award in the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival for his outstanding performance in the Nasser Brothers’ (Arab and Tarzan) Gaza Mon Amour. Zuaiter is known for his marvelous villain role as an Israeli intelligence officer in Hani Abu Assad’s Omar which won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes 2013. Naor is known for his role as Saddam Hussein in the 2008 TV Series The House of Saddam, as the Baathi leader Al-Rawi in Paul Greengrass’s 2010 film The Green Zone and as a PLO leader in Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

The Irish Actor Andrew Scott won the 2012 BAFTA award for best supporting actor for his great performance as a villain in the TV series Sherlock, among other awards, and the English actress Ruth Wilson won the 2015 Golden Globe award for best supporting actress in the TV drama The Affair.

The filmmaker and the screenwriter tried to be as politically correct as possible in this complicated conflict, but they end up oversimplifying their story and reducing the drama to a single strand: a Norwegian couple striving for Palestinian-Israeli peace. A coherent production documenting a difficult moment in recent Middle East history, the film nonetheless leaves something to be desired.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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