The timely arrival of HBO’s ‘Oslo’

Director Bartlett Sher reflects on the lessons of history, why the Middle East matters to so many people and what the Oslo peace process could teach Washington

The opening scene of the film “Oslo” begins not in Norway but in an unusually snow-covered Middle East. A dream sequence intersperses videos of violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank with footage of a European woman, headscarf pulled down around her neck, wandering through Gaza. An ominous soundtrack crescendos as the violence grows more intense, until viewers see the woman in a United Nations car that takes a direct hit from a projectile — a bullet or a rock, it isn’t clear which. 

The woman is Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry who is haunted by her time in Gaza, including a memory of seeing a Palestinian boy with a stone in his hand get shot by an Israeli soldier. After returning from the region, she and her husband Terje Rød-Larsen, a social scientist, undertake the defining mission of their career: orchestrating the 1993 back-channel negotiations that kicked off what ultimately became the Oslo Accords. 

The story of Mona and Terje — and the Israelis and Palestinians they brought together — was first told in the 2016 Broadway play “Oslo.” That show has now been adapted into a movie, which premieres Saturday on HBO and was produced by Marc Platt and Steven Spielberg. Playwright J.T. Rogers adapted the script, and his collaborator, Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher, directed the film. 

The movie depicts how this unlikely Norwegian couple convinced Israelis and Palestinians to come together at a historic mansion in a Scandinavian forest to hash out their differences while enjoying traditional fish dishes and drinking copious amounts of liquor.

The characters at the heart of the story are not the expected leaders — no one plays Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or U.S. President Bill Clinton, although Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, makes a brief appearance. Instead, it features the lower-level politicians and intellectuals who participated in the early rounds of talks, before they became official. The Israeli side includes, first, a professor from Haifa, and later Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and Uri Savir, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The Palestinian side features Ahmed Qurei, the PLO’s finance minister who is living in exile in Tunisia, and Hassan Asfour, his associate. 

“The premise was getting enemies into a room to actually see each other as human beings,” Sher told Jewish Insider in a recent interview in Washington, D.C. “Oslo” tells the story of a nearly three-decade-old event, but it does not attempt to offer a comprehensive history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; instead, it seeks to offer lessons on courage, leadership and humanity from an era that now feels quite distant. 

Dov Glickman and Salim Daw in a scene from "Oslo." (Larry D. Horricks)

Dov Glickman and Salim Daw in a scene from “Oslo.” (Larry D. Horricks)

The recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas might be compelling marketing for a movie about Israelis and Palestinians who were committed to coming together to end decades of fighting. “I would give anything for it not to be like this at this moment. Let’s just make that clear,” Sher said. But, he added, he recognized that it could “stir up a huge amount of interest in the subject, and therefore someone [who] goes to see ‘Oslo’ will learn something good, about the positive, about the history of where we are.”

While the movie is coming out at a time in which increased attention has been given to the conflict, it is also being released into a cultural moment where one-sidedness is very much in fashion, at least on social media. Many people who have recently begun to speak out about the conflict seemingly shun the complexity that is an inherent feature of the film.

“Great theater is always not between a wrong and right, but between two rights. If both sides are right, in a way it makes for a better story,” said Sher. “For people now who’ve gotten so entrenched in certain positions, to see that there was a time when people were willing to be helping, doesn’t hurt.”

While the disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinians remain unresolved, Sher views “Oslo” as a historical film. “It’s not a story which has a conclusion, and I don’t make the conclusion that, ‘Oh, if only we could go back to Oslo,’” Sher explained. “Learning about your own history, especially in the crazy social media world, is good.”

The story of these early negotiations is told through the eyes of Mona and Terje, who are meant to be neutral facilitators. Throughout the movie, Mona remains calm, interjecting only to stop an outburst from one of the Israeli or Palestinian negotiators. Keeping thoughts internal is more difficult for Terje, but he, too, succeeds — the conversations are left to the Israelis and Palestinians, who often pull the doors to the negotiating room closed as Mona and Terje watch from outside. 

“They delivered us into a world we didn’t know, but they didn’t take credit for or try to do it from a motivation, or like they’re there to save all these people,” Sher noted. Still, he recognizes that telling the story of one of the most complicated regional, religious conflicts in the world through the eyes of white Christian characters could be a minefield. “We assiduously avoided that. It would be a trap. It’s not up to us,” he said. “The agency and importance of the story has to live with the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Norwegians are simply the facilitators.” 

This neutrality is what makes the roles of Mona and Terje so difficult for the actors to play, said Sher. “It’s hard on the actors playing those roles, because they don’t get to have their own emotional response. They have to withhold, and they have to stay back,” he said. The couple is played by the British actors Ruth Wilson, a Golden Globe- and Tony-nominated actress who recently appeared in “His Dark Materials,” and Andrew Scott, who gained international acclaim two years ago when he starred in the hit show “Fleabag.” 

The play came about from a personal connection: Sher and Terje’s daughters were best friends who attended the same elementary school in Manhattan. They would see each other at the girls’ soccer games, where Terje recounted tales of his largely secret role in getting the Oslo peace process off the ground. “He would tell me the most outrageous stories about Middle East peace. It occurred to me that that was theatrical, the theatricality of hearing about going up there and doing a back channel and getting them to all sit and talk.”

Sher and Rogers, the playwright, have collaborated on other historical plays. The pair previously produced a play called “Blood and Gifts,” about the Stinger missile program in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “It was the most successful counterintelligence operation in U.S. history. It helped the Russians be driven out of Afghanistan, and it produced one thing that wasn’t so good. That was Osama bin Laden,” said Sher. The pair also worked on a project on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. They are now working on a production based on The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s bestselling book about Robert Moses, the influential and controversial New York City urban planner. 

Sher’s CV is long, with a mix of originals plays and adaptations, including the 2019 Broadway production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird. But Sher has also directed a number of award-winning musicals, including a 2008 revival of South Pacific that won him a Tony and a 2015 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

“Like most people [in the industry], I was in shows in school, in high school, playing small parts in musicals,” Sher said. After writing plays in college, he went back to his high school in California to run the drama department. He went to graduate school in England, where he studied sub-Saharan African theater and then experimental Polish theater. “I had a weird range of influences,” Sher noted, “and then I got better teachers and mentors and went into theater, and have been doing it for a long time since.”

In bringing “Oslo” to the big screen, Sher had to learn an entirely new way of directing. For one, the length had to change; the movie is just under two hours, while the play clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes. One challenge that he faced as a director was the fact that film is less interactive and less intimate than theater. At a play, with a live audience, “you get to select what you’re focusing on, and the whole thing’s going to unfold in front of you,” Sher explained. “In film, I’m going to select every single thing you see, and I’m going to really control all of that.” 

With a play, the director can make changes before each showing. To now release “Oslo” to the entire world as a static, unchanging creation is something new for Sher. “The basic experience of releasing a film is so weird compared to theater, because you’re going every day, and you’re having audiences respond every night,” said Sher. “We’ve been working on it in this vacuum, and we’re gonna go from 250 to 300 people seeing it to millions.” 

Salim Daw, Waleed Zuaiter, Igal Naor and Jeff Wilbusch in a scene from "Oslo." (Larry D. Horricks)

Salim Daw, Waleed Zuaiter, Igal Naor and Jeff Wilbusch in a scene from “Oslo.” (Larry D. Horricks)

The now-global reach of “Oslo” helps introduce the story to people around the world who are unfamiliar with it. But it also means astute and potentially critical Israeli and Palestinian viewers. (The play was staged in Israel, but “I think they cut a lot of it,” he noted.) Ultimately, Sher isn’t concerned. “All the actors were from Israel and Palestine, and they were so extraordinary and so invested in it,” said Sher. “I didn’t feel like I was suddenly just making up my version of the world there, but I was actually participating with people who lived through a lot of this.”

Sher has no obvious connection to the subject matter, but he argues that “I don’t have to live through something to work on it.” Still, he does have Jewish roots: His father was born in a shtetl in Lithuania and fled pogroms in Europe, a fact Sher only learned as a teenager, after his parents had divorced. Sher’s father rejected his faith as a way to assimilate and stave off antisemitism he thought he might face in the business world. He never spoke about it. “My mother was about to marry him and went home to meet his parents, and I think after a few days, she said something like, ‘Is there something you want to tell me?’ Because, of course, they’re speaking Yiddish in the house.”

Sher’s father died relatively young, and he never got to ask about his Jewish background. But it remained a fascination of Sher’s, eventually contributing to his decision to direct the “Fiddler on the Roof” revival. “Often the first generation holds onto their beliefs. The second generation will reject everything. Then the third generation will become obsessed with the first generation,” said Sher. “I always was kind of obsessed and fascinated myself… It didn’t become a religious obsession. I was most attracted to the culture, the ideas.”

While the topic of the film could, at least in theory, be rather niche, Sher understands that the conflict attracts outsized global attention. “I’ve always had this thing about the Middle East. It’s at the center of a lot of our consciousness in general, and it’s an unresolved thing,” he explained. “It does matter to everyone, so if something happens, like that has happened in the last couple of weeks, it affects the whole world, because that region is at the heart of so many things. We all have a responsibility for it.”

And while it might not be part of the official marketing campaign, Sher insists that the movie has broader resonance beyond one small corner of the Middle East. “Leaders and people who work in these positions make these efforts and have to do these courageous things. That’s just how it is. I don’t mean just about Palestine, Israel. I mean about everything,” said Sher. “When we first did it, we said it was basically about Republicans and Democrats.”

The play has been staged in numerous cities around the world. Sher said people who saw it in London left talking about Brexit while viewers in South Korea walked away discussing the country’s enmity with its northern neighbor. Sher met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) earlier this week, and he said they discussed this “sublayer” of the movie. “What is it going to take — can you get Ilhan Omar and AOC and Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz in the room together? And what would happen?” 

It’s an almost laughably optimistic message to bring to Washington. Then again, no one thought anything would come of Mona and Terje’s plucky peacemaking efforts. 

“I think that’s the kind of secret message,” said Sher. “If it’s between two opposing forces, can they come to agreement? How do you get that agreement to work? That’s really what we were always trying to do.”

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