Review: The Oslo Diaries

by Andrew Parker

With The Oslo Diaries, documentarians Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan aren’t only offered unprecedented access to some of the key figures in the now maligned and ultimately fruitless Israel-Palestinian peace talks of the early-to-mid 1990s, but the perspectives being offered are from unique, previously unseen primary sources that bring the underlying conflicts into sharper, newly relevant light. In addition to sit down interviews with many of the consultants and politicians on both sides of the initially covert and secretive plan to bring the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization to the bargaining table, Loushy and Sivan use the in-the-moment feelings that participants put down in their personal diaries to help propel their documentary, offering up a great deal of emotional weight alongside their cautionary, but narrowly focused history lesson.

It all began secretly in 1992, when Israeli professors Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld are asked to covertly meet with three high ranking members of the PLO to discuss the first steps towards peace. The meetings, slated to take place in Oslo and away from prying eyes, were to be carried out in complete secrecy, with few knowing they were even taking place. If the talks were discovered, participants on both sides could be in danger, and potentially branded as traitors during a time of non-communication between Yitzhak Rabin’ Israeli government and Yasser Arafat’s PLO. Across several rounds of talks and negotiations, sticking points would emerge, higher ranking Israeli officials would get involved, and eventually news of these historic, clandestine summits would be leaked to the press. The final results of the Oslo meetings were a series of rushed and historic photo opportunities for embattled president Rabin and an increasingly exhausted Arafat, but it wouldn’t be long before politics, nationalist sentiments, and religious fervour would put a stop to any progress, and the thirty year long conflict between the two sides would return to status quo.

The Oslo Diaries doesn’t offer much of a history lesson about Israeli-Palestinian conflict either before or after the time period stretching between 1992 and the early 2000s, so at least a cursory knowledge of the dispute is a definite prerequisite. Loushy and Sivan, to their credit, aren’t overstuffing their movie by looking at every facet of a politically, ethically, and religiously charged conflict that sustains to this day, preferring to look at a fixed moment in time and how an initially positive and well meaning idea can be ruined by external political factors.

There’s plenty of blame to go around as to why the Oslo talks ultimately failed, and everyone interviewed by Loushy and Sivan tend to point to the same signposts, regardless of their side of the debate. At a certain point, the talks became hurried. Israelis often refused serious conversations about settlers, the redrawing of national boundaries, and the removal of troops from Gaza and Jericho, preferring a stance that amounts to someone saying “take it or leave it.” Once the talks were leaked to the press, events started steamrolling along, leaving many key bargaining decisions still on the table when Rabin and Arafat made their way to the White House garden or former president Bill Clinton for a pretty, but now ultimately hollow press opportunity. Ensuing rounds of talks, in Norway and elsewhere, would produce diminishing returns, but the key players – especially left leaning Rabin, who was in a politically tenuous situation and facing strong opposition from nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu – clung to the idea that things could be worked out if given enough time.

What’s most striking about Loushy and Sivan’s deep dive into what has become a now historically depressing footnote in Israeli-Palestinian relations isn’t their attention to detail, but the emotion that the filmmakers are capable of finding within the process. Any documentarian worth their salt could have assembled all the facts and data surrounding the over 1,100 days of talks along a timeline and made something worthwhile out of it. By working closely with those intimately invested in the process and looking back on the words that were penned by such key players during the talks, The Oslo Diaries places a uniquely human face on the fight for peace.

Many of the diary entries read throughout The Oslo Diaries come from a place of emotional and intellectual honesty, often highlighting things on either side that couldn’t be said aloud for the sake of diplomacy. The words of former Palestinian finance leader and chief negotiator Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurie) hit the hardest, offering quiet pleas that the talks work so he can return to Palestine and visit his father one final time. Everyone profiled puts a personal face to religious and political squabbling, and while those most responsible for making a mockery of the peace process aren’t heard from, those willing to speak up about their participation in the talks are more than eager to talk about how the dissolution of their work made them feel, both in the moment and long after.

Loushy and Sivan support the diaries with plenty of talking head interviews that are just as candid, including the final on camera interview of former Israeli president and key figure Shimon Peres. There’s also great use of archival footage, with Loushy and Sivan finding moments to highlight and point to that looked hopeful and optimistic in the moment, but were ultimately undercut by tension and disbelief that things were going to work out. An archival interview between Arafat and a British journalist (conducted shortly after his first White House visit) where the Palestinian leader slowly realizes that the accords aren’t as favourable to his people as he once thought is both cringe-inducing and indispensable.

What The Oslo Diaries still lacks, however, is that greater sense of history, and while some might not need it, there’s a void that no amount of emotion or factual data pertaining to the accords can fill. Loushy and Sivan, for better and for worse, plunk viewers into a fixed period in time, never straying very far from the established borders. Those borders have some of the most fascinating material, but The Oslo Diaries make it seem like these peace talks occurred in their own separate vacuum, far removed from the strains of history and bloodshed. To some degree, this approach is correct, but like the talks themselves, the filmmakers are leaving a lot of material on the table that begs to be exposed and talked about.

That’s a bit disappointing, but Loushy and Sivan make up for that oversight by leaving things on a potent, currently relevant point. The crumbling of the peace process was both influenced by and the result of rising Israeli nationalism and protectionism, and in its final moments The Oslo Diaries eloquently shows without much embellishment how righteous wars are easier to sell to an eager populace than peace, understanding, or unified compromise. The Oslo Diaries might be about a single moment in Israel-Palestinian relations that many want to forget, but it’s a moment that looms large and had more global connotations than many outsiders realized. The Oslo talks weren’t the end of anything, but rather the start of something newer, scarier, and further reaching.

The Oslo Diaries opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, July 6, 2018.

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