'The Oslo Diaries': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Dreams of Mideast peace animate this fine doc.

Survivors of the Mideast peace talks during the 1990s share their memories and reflections in this comprehensive Israeli documentary.

With the uproar caused by President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested Jerusalem, thoughts of Mideast peace seem ever more remote. These recent events add poignancy to a look back at one period in modern history when the peace process seemed vaguely encouraging. The Oslo Diaries, a documentary premiering in Sundance, revisits that time in the 1990s, and the film is not unique in wistfully recalling that era. Last year’s Tony award-winning play, Oslo, dramatized those negotiations in a more theatrical format. The new film from Israeli directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan will surely benefit from some of the same acclaim.

The directors, who also worked on another Sundance documentary, Censored Voices, a couple of years ago, have taken a non-traditional approach to the subject. Instead of relying merely on talking heads and newsreel footage from the era, they include a number of re-enactments of the meetings in Oslo, with actors impersonating the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. The filmmakers also include excerpts from books and diaries later written by the principal participants; these excerpts are also read by actors. 

This technique is less controversial than it once was. Still, it can sometimes be disorienting to see these staged scenes juxtaposed with footage from the period and from present-day (or fairly recent) interviews with the surviving players. The disorientation is doubled because some of the actors who appear in the re-enactments look remarkably like the real negotiators interviewed two decades later. (Some of them, of course, have aged more gracefully than others.)

Even if there’s something a bit queasy about this blurring of fact and fiction, the film does have more energy and thrust than a “purer” approach might have offered. Handsome exterior shots meant to represent wintry Oslo (actually filmed in Kiev) make a neat contrast to the arid landscape of Israel. And the skillful editing by the two co-directors keeps the film driving forward. The music by Francois Jolin adds both suspense and melancholy.

But the main virtue of the film lies in the thoughtful interviews given by the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, both the accompanying voiceover commentaries and their later on-camera appearances. These participants do not take a simplistic approach to the period of negotiations, expressing skepticism toward their lifelong enemies but also recalling the burst of hope that led them to believe they might be on the verge of a breakthrough. All of the survivors provide thoughtful perspective, but we are especially struck by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Abu Ala, and Yitzhak Rabin’s second-in-command, Shimon Peres, who gave his last interviews to the filmmakers before his death in 2016.

Equally heartrending is the footage from the period, including, of course, the Camp David accords attended by President Clinton, along with Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. There are darker moments, like the meeting of the Knesset where Rabin was shouted down for his peacemaking efforts and a fierce rally led by hawkish opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not discourage the demonstrators from screaming “Death to Rabin.” (Rabin was assassinated not long afterwards at a peace rally attended by an equally huge number of supporters.) When Netanyahu won election in 1996 after the assassination, it was by a razor-thin margin. The rest, as they say, is increasingly tragic history.

But the moments that stick in the memory are those between lesser-known figures like chief Israeli negotiator Uri Savir saying to Abu Ala near the end of their promising talks, “See you soon, my friend.” Friendship among former enemies is a spectacle that inspires even as it leaves us saddened by the intractable political realities.

Directors-screenwriters-editors: Mor Loushy, Daniel Sivan

Producers: Hilla Medalia, Ina Fichman

Executive producers: Guy Lavie, Koby Gal Raday, Danna Stern, Dagmar Mielke, Barbara Dobkin, Jean Tsien

Directors of photography, Avner Shahaf, Alex Margineau

Consulting editor: Jean Tsien

Music: Francois Jolin

No rating, 97 minutes