HBO’s ‘Oslo’ Offers Some Hope, but Mideast Peace Still Feels Like a Distant Dream

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Waleed Zuaiter as Hassan Asfour, left, and Dov Glickman as Yair Hirschfeld in the HBO Max film "Oslo."
Waleed Zuaiter as Hassan Asfour, left, and Dov Glickman as Yair Hirschfeld in the HBO Max film "Oslo." Credit: HBO/Courtesy of Yes

>> UPDATE: 'Oslo' nominated for Emmy Award

Or it’s when the organs of Jews and Arabs killed in riots are donated to Arabs and Jews – and a “Jewish” kidney next to an “Arab” heart (and vice versa) must surely be the ultimate act of coexistence.

Clearly, I’ll have to wait until the Dead Sea freezes over before Israel and Hamas come to their senses and start talking about peace. But in the meantime, I also found hope this week in two very different films: HBO’s “Oslo” and the Palestinian drama “200 Meters.”

‘Oslo’ (HBO)

I read a great tweet by a British comedy writer recently (apologies, his name escapes me) in which he explained why he couldn’t get on board with the otherwise-venerated BBC police drama “Line of Duty”: its complete absence of humor.

Comedy exists in the darkest, most somber and unlikely of places – for example, I’ve never laughed so hard as the time my Jewish mother-in-law called a painfully obtuse nurse a Nazi, just hours after I learned that my baby was dying.

And that’s why I wasn’t surprised by how genuinely funny J.T. Rogers’ HBO Max film is about the secret back-channel talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Norway nearly 30 years ago. Any story that includes a joke beginning “Interpol, the CIA and the Mossad are chasing a rabbit …” is always going to work for me.

I never got to see “Oslo” performed on either Broadway or in the West End, making do with reading the original script. Still, the small-screen version feels so stagey, I feel I’ve put that right now.

Yet that’s not meant as a criticism of this adaptation: The power of “Oslo” comes from its dialogue, its characters, the performances and the sheer outrageousness of the actual storyline, not the cinematography or audacious tracking shots (there aren’t any, even though the director of photography is regular Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski).

I’m sure that some people were horrified when Rogers and director Bartlett Sher chose to take one of the most tragic stories of the 20th century – the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and turn it into a smart but breezy Broadway hit. Me? I’ll only start worrying when they decide to turn it into a musical: “The Oslo A-chords”? “Wherever I Lay My Arafat (That’s My Home)”? “Haifa-delity”? This stuff writes itself, though I’m pretty certain “Dome of the Rock” was an AC/DC B-side in the late ’70s.

Normally, it would bother me how much of a dramatized true story is real and how much the writer is taking outrageous liberties. But I love what Rogers did with this story, even if it transpires that not a single word of what we hear is true. As Rogers explained in the introduction to his script: “I sought to capture the spirit of those real events – their craziness, fear, joy, and heartbreak. I wanted to tell a story about men and women risking their own lives and challenging their own beliefs as they struggle without a road map toward peace.” Job done.

There are clearly elements here that are based on actual events. First, the shocking experiences in Gaza of Norwegian diplomats Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, which prompted their desire to seek an unimaginable peace between the two sides.

Second, the core composition of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations: professors Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak from the University of Haifa, and Uri Savir, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry; PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurei (aka Abu Ala), and the PLO liaison at previous U.S.-sponsored talks, Hassan Asfour.

Were the two Israelis really such amiable buffoons (they’re dubbed “Laurel and Hardy” at one point in the stage version), and the Palestinians such stern-faced ideologues? Was Savir really such a straight-talking sabra (native Israeli) whose bark was worse than his bite, as presented here?

Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott take a wrong turn in Gaza in HBO Max film "Oslo."Credit: HBO / Courtesy of Yes

Honestly, I didn’t care, and instead allowed myself to be swept up in a story that seems to exist in a world as fantastical as Narnia or Neverland given where we are right now.

However, I do fervently hope that Abu Ala was indeed given the code name Puntoffle (one of the words for slipper in Yiddish) for whenever they discussed the secret talks.

It’s impossible to watch “Oslo” without being struck by the naivety of its two Norwegian diplomats – a real-life couple from a land whose biggest enemies were mythical trolls and frostbite, yet who believed they could somehow solve the world’s biggest problem by rooting the solution in the personal, not the organizational. It was a refreshing idea, rejecting the concept of totalism – resolving everything altogether at the same time – in favor of gradualism: one problem at a time, or, to use my favorite Hebrew phrase, para para, one cow at a time.

Personally, I’d agree to anything actors Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott asked me to do, and I loved their casting as the facilitating Nordic diplomats. Ditto the two delegations, which is like a who’s who of Israeli acting talent: Dov Glickman (“Shtisel”) has huge fun as the wild-haired but mild-spirited Yair Hirschfeld, while Jeff Wilbusch (“Unorthodox”) oozes charisma as the permanently black-clad Uri Savir.

And Igal Naor (you name it, he’s been in it) flips between menace and charm at the drop of a pen as Israeli legal expert Joel Singer; Salim Daw (aka Dau) is captivating as Arafat’s right-hand man Ahmed Qurei, someone who suffers fools the way Benjamin Netanyahu suffers cheap ice cream; and Sasson Gabay (aka Gabai), who gets to steal the show late on as straight-talking Shimon Peres.

There’s a wonderful moment quite early on when, following the surprisingly successful first secret meeting in wintry Norway, Hirschfeld and his Gazan counterpart at the talks, po-faced communist Hassan Asfour (Waleed Zuaiter, looking for all the world like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Arab cousin), say their farewells.

After facing each other in an awkward silence, Hassan slowly extends his hand, and as they shake hands, says, “You are my first Jew.” To which Hirschfeld responds, “I hope … I was not too stringy.” It’s both a touchingly humane and funny moment, of which there are plenty in the film, which skews very close to the original stage play.

Jeff Wilbusch as Uri Savir and Salim Dau as Ahmed Qurie in HBO Max film "Oslo."Credit: HBO/Courtesy of Yes

“Oslo” serves as both a sign of hope for the future and a warning from the past. While it’s heartening to see “enemies” sitting around a table and finding common purpose, it’s also disheartening to recall what came next: assassinations, suicide bombings, separation barriers, Jewish extremists, Islamist extremists, war, war and more war. Oh, and Israel won the Eurovision Song Contest a couple of times, but we’ve all suffered enough without having to relive Netta Barzilai’s “Toy.”

The film ends slightly differently to the play, giving the final “Give peace a chance” speech to Mona. It’s a stirring moment, but I preferred the original where Rød-Larsen addresses the audience and delivers this incredibly theatrical monologue: “My friends, do not look at where we are; look behind you. … If we have come this far, through blood, through fear – hatred – how much further can we yet go? [He then points ahead.] There! On the horizon. The possibility. Do you see it? Do you? [He waits. He stares at us.] Good.”

‘200 Meters’

I should have reviewed Ameen Nayfeh’s Palestinian drama “200 Meters” last week, to coincide with its online U.S. screenings at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (which ends on May 27), but waited to tie it in with “Oslo” – almost to serve as a bookend to where the Oslo Accords ultimately floundered.

Much like Rogers’ drama, “200 Meters” is a far more beguiling, ultimately uplifting experience than any film about a Palestinian man desperately trying to cross the border from the West Bank into Israel has any right to be. Its title refers to the agonizingly short distance between the homes of Mustafa (Ali Suliman) in Tul Karm and his wife and three children on the other side of the West Bank separation barrier in Israel.

While his family can visit him, equipped as they are with Israeli ID cards (Mustafa refused to apply for one), their lives are ultimately governed by the checkpoints and the capriciousness of the occupying power.

The father is a man of few words, and at times his main form of communication with his kids seems to be flashing the balcony light on and off when they’re 200 meters away – which is literally him at his brightest. Yet in Suliman’s dextrous hands, Mustafa is an honorable soul; a smart guy who’s fluent in three languages yet reduced to taking odd jobs to make ends meet and plagued by a nagging back problem (which is hard to see as anything other than a metaphor).

Ali Suliman as Mustafa in "200 Meters."Credit: Alaa Aliabdallah

There were so many times when Nayfeh’s debut feature called to mind the work of Ken Loach – except the British director hasn’t made a film this good in decades. For example, there’s a brilliant 15-minute scene set on a minibus that effortlessly mixes laughs and tension as Mustafa tries to be smuggled into Israel, while the scenes at an Israeli checkpoint (aka almost fully automated cage) reflect the dehumanizing nature of the occupation without ever laboring the point.

The film also has several surprise twists that never quite play out the way you expect them to.

In short, “200 Meters” is a film it’s worth going a considerable distance to check out (visit the Film Movement website for details about upcoming screenings in America). It’s also a great vehicle for Suliman’s considerable talents. I look forward to seeing the Nazareth-born actor again next year in “The Swimmers,” Netflix’s dramatized telling of two Syrian refugee sisters who competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Expensive ‘Charlie’

There were two huge media stories this week, but most people seemed to be talking about the less interesting one. Yes, Amazon has bought Leo the Lion (aka MGM) for a staggering $8.45 billion, which even Jeff Bezos would struggle to describe as chump change.

It’s all part of the ongoing streaming war in which Amazon Prime, Netflix, Apple TV, Disney, (I could go on) flex their muscles in the brutal battle for subscribers. I understand the business logic of owning a piece of James Bond, Hannibal Lecter, the Pink Panther, et al., and having a filmmaking wing. But I will never understand why someone just bought the original 2007 video of “Charlie Bit My Finger” for over $760,000.

While I pretend that I’ve known for eons what an NFT, a nonfungible token, is, the most depressing thought is that viral videos and memes are now considered desirable artworks. How long before we hear stories of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman trying to add the “Disaster Girl” meme (which sold for $500,000 just last month) to place alongside that fake Leonardo da Vinci painting on his luxury yacht?

I’ll be honest, I come from a world where Blockbuster Video is still a more preferable term to “blockchain,” so I have no idea whether it was a smart commercial move to spend almost three-quarters of a million dollars on a viral video that’s still available to watch on YouTube.

Similarly, I don’t want anyone to ever explain to me what the phrase “It will be memorialized as an NFT on the blockchain” actually means.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss – though I will draw the line at anyone buying an NFT of any of the thousands of versions of that “Downfall” Hitler meme. That in itself would be worthy of a, well, “Downfall” Hitler meme.

“Oslo” is on HBO Max in America from Saturday and on Hot VOD, Next TV, Yes VOD and Cellcom TV in Israel from Sunday. It airs on Hot HBO on Monday at 10 P.M.

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