J.T. Rogers’ Oslo takes to the screen

A timely story of the 1993 peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine

Assistant Editor
The Norwegian American

Oslo film poster

Photo courtesy of Warner Media
The film adaptation of the stageplay Oslo is currently available for streaming on HBO.

In the early months of 1993, delegates from Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government met secretly in Norway to negotiate peace after nearly 50 years of conflict. These secret negotiations eventually led to the Oslo Accords, the first of which was signed in Washington, D.C., in September 1993, the second in Egypt in September 1995.

Oslo, a new film from HBO, tells the story behind this secret peace process. Written by J.T. Rogers and based on his Tony award-winning play by the same name, the film follows the Norwegian couple who worked behind the scenes to help organize these negotiations: Mona Juul (played by English actress Ruth Wilson), a Norwegian foreign minister, and her husband Terje Rød-Larsen (played by Irish actor Andrew Scott), a sociologist and director of the Fafo Institute. Oslo premiered on May 29, 2021, just weeks after a violence flared up between Palestine and Israel once again. 

Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott play Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen in the film Oslo

Photo: Larry D. Horricks/HBO
Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott play Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian couple who helped organize the secret negotiations between the PLO and the Israeli government.

After a short montage of clips of violence and protest from the conflict interspersed with images of Mona walking through a rubble-covered street in Jerusalem, the film opens in December 1992. Juul is in Oslo and Rød-Larsen in Jerusalem, and together they are working to set up a meeting between representatives from Israel and from the PLO. 

They believe that when a person meets their enemy face to face and sees the humanity in them, the possibilities of negotiating grow substantially. (It is worth noting that at this point, it was illegal for an Israeli official to speak to a member of the PLO.) Juul and Rød-Larsen successfully get Ahmed Qurie, the finance minister of the PLO, and Yair Hirschfeld, an Israeli professor of economics, to meet, forming the initial relationship that the negotiating teams were built on. 

The film follows the many meetings between delegations from the PLO and Israeli government, the disappointments, the hold-your-breath moments of near failures, and the moments of friendship that develop between the two sides, all converging in one of the most significant peace agreements between Palestine and Israel. 

The story of how Oslo originally came to be is quite an incredible one. Bartlett Sher, director of both the play and the film, is a personal friend of Juul and Rød-Larsen (their daughters were close friends in school). Several years ago, Sher introduced Rød-Larsen and Rogers. Rød-Larsen told Rogers of his involvement in the peacebuilding process in the Middle East in the early 1990s and his experiences working on a secret back channel of negotiations leading up to the Oslo Accords.

Rogers’ imagination was immediately captured, and after extensive research and several interviews with both Rød-Larsen and Juul, he set out to tell their story, one which had previously not been widely known.

Photo: Larry D. Horricks/HBO
A Norwegian foreign minister, Mona Juul had important contacts to help make the secret negotiations happen.

Rogers describes Oslo as an intellectual thriller. While this is true, there are many sections in the film where the action feels quite slow, perhaps a symptom of adapting a stage play to the screen. However, the cast is very strong, and the writing conveys the tension and urgency of the high-stakes peace talks. 

In an early scene in the film, Rød-Larsen suggests that peace is more successfully built “not on grand pronouncements between governments, but on intimate discussions between people,” in a discussion with Yossi Bellin, then the Deputy Foreign Minister for Israel. In many ways, the film exemplifies this idea. It humanizes the Israel-Palestine conflict, and gives viewers a personal look through each of the characters as they express the ways the conflict has affected them.

Oslo falls short establishing the film within the wider context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The film begins and ends with brief clips from the Israel-Palestine conflict in the 1990s to situate the story, but there is little explanation of the particular stage the conflict is in. 

Specifically—and significantly—the film never really builds the context of the First Intifada, a series of Palestinian protests and riots in Gaza and the West Bank that began in 1987, which was a primary factor in bringing Israel to negotiate peace with the PLO in the first place. 

Unfortunately, the peace built by the Oslo Accords did not last. In 2000, delegations from Israel and Palestine met at Camp David to settle remaining issues left by the Accords, but they were never able to reach an agreement. Later that year, the Second Intifada in the Occupied Territories began. 

But the filmmakers are adamant that the story is not about the success or failure of the negotiations, but rather the courage and the bravery of the men who met in Oslo in 1993, who sat across from each other even though they were enemies, and who worked together to imagine a different future for their nations.

Oslo is available to stream on HBO MAX. For more information, visit: www.hbo.com/movies/oslo. 

See also:

Norwegian diplomacy shines in OSLO,” Arlene & Thor A. Larsen, The Norwegian American, July 25, 2016

Oslo’s peaceful warriors take the stage,” Victoria Hofmo, The Norwegian American, October 4, 2017

This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Courtney Olsen

Courtney Olsen is a writer based in Tacoma, Wash. She is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and the University of Oxford in England and has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2020. A historical fiction enthusiast, she spends her free time working through her ever-growing reading list with a cup of tea in hand.