Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in "The Oslo Diaries"

Sundance ’18 Interview: Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan on Finding Overtures of Peace in the Pages of “The Oslo Diaries”

It should go without saying, but when making documentaries, it never hurts to ask your subjects what knickknacks they might keep in their attic, particularly when they were involved in the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s where Israel and Palestine agreed to terms that would’ve reshaped the region and global politics as a whole, only to see their agreement collapse when it came into public view.

“When we decided to make a film about Oslo, we started talking to all the participants and you ask very politely, “Did you save some pictures?” recalls Mor Loushy, whose last film “Censored Voices” made canny use of audio interviews with Israeli soldiers collected by Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira in the immediate aftermath of 1967’s Six-Day War to shake the history free from homogenized official accounts to place it in a richer, more personalized realm. “We found out that most of the [negotiators] wrote diaries, so all of that really opened the window for us to tell this story.”

An intimate treatment of the delicate talks proves not only revelatory in “The Oslo Diaries,” but entirely appropriate given how the fate of the Middle East was placed in the hands of a select few who met in secret to forge an agreement that would’ve established a Palestinian Authority over the West Bank, recognizing the PLO as representing the interests of the country while backing out of the Gaza Strip. While Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat kept an antagonistic public posture, they set up backchannel negotiations involving scholars with no obvious government ties to strike a deal based on practical considerations rather than political ones.

With Israeli professors Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld dispatched to work with Palestinian officials, “The Oslo Diaries” naturally depicts the peace talks from a different angle than one usually sees since there’s a candor that comes from never having to run for office, but Loushy and Sivan utilize both the looser lips that come with time that has passed in present-day interviews and the humanizing details left in the notebooks of the participants to capture the emotion that typically isn’t reflected as a factor in the creation of history. Although audiences will know the unfortunate outcome of the talks, which completely unraveled with the assassination of Rabin by an ultranationalist radical within Israel giving rise to the militant Benjamin Netanyahu, “The Oslo Diaries” continually stuns with memories of the casual moments that shaped the negotiations with such huge implications for millions and how warm the discussions became between representatives of nations so often depicted as mortal enemies.

Shortly after the premiere of “The Oslo Diaries” at Sundance, Loushy and. Sivan spoke about their own negotiations in making the fascinating documentary, getting their subjects to trust them with their personal archives and balancing out a fair view of the peace talks as well as speaking with Shimon Peres, the former foreign minister under Rabin who became Prime Minister in the wake of his tragic death, shortly before he passed away in September of 2016.

Yitzhak Rabin in "The Oslo Diaries"Given how “Censored Voices” was also based on audio tapes, did that film lead to this one in any way?

Mor Loushy: “Censored Voices” was a film about the Six-Day War and the beginning of the occupation, and when we started thinking about what we wanted to do in our new project, we said there are so many films about war, we want to make a film about peace. I mean, [people] kept asking me, “Why are we always failing at peace? What happened there? Why haven’t we succeeded in doing that?” So we dove right in and we found out that the Oslo Accord story has all of the elements of the Middle East conflict in this three-year story. Then we started researching it, we came across Ron Pundak’s diary and we read the first two pages, we said, “Okay, this is a jackpot for us because this is a way for us to look at the big historical events through such a personal point of view.” This is how we started four years ago.

With Ron Pundak, since there’s also footage, what was it like to find visual materials out there as well as the diaries?

Daniel Sivan: Basically, [there are] a few interesting stories. One of the most heartbreaking stories as I see it is that there was this filmmaker named Ishai Golan, who was just following the peace process in Washington, a bit in Oslo and even in Tunis. He was going around filming these people and when the peace process collapsed and crashed, he was so heartbroken as a filmmaker that he just took all this beta tapes and locked them up and put them in his attic. He said, “I wanted to make a film about peace, not the failure of peace” and he just didn’t touch them. When we approached him through our producer Hilla Medalia, she’s a personal friend of his and we started talking to him, he was crying because for him, it’s a good documentation, but it’s this heartbreaking reality. But he gave us the tapes and that’s just one of the places where we got this very rare material from.

Did the diaries give you much of a guide for how to tell this story?

Mor Loushy: Of course, this is our main structure of how to build the story. The diaries are very long and the film is 96 minutes, so of course, we had to pick throughout the diaries and we chose the most emotional things we saw in the diaries – [like when we] saw one of the debates was the most emotional that they wrote about – the one that seized the feeling of the wound, of the feeling, of the pain, of what they were dealing with. It was a big challenge, but we love our job. It was fantastic to read them all and really choose what to put there in order to really tell the story in the right way.

At what point do you want to start doing the present day interviews? Have you settled how you’ll present some of the archival?

Daniel Sivan: The first thing we did, in parallel to going around and looking for any archive we could find and any piece of paper we can read, was really talking to the people themselves and we interviewed them all a number of times [because] the interviews are always the base for any film. Not only do they help us construct the film, but they enlighten us because people tell us stories that you would never get from written materials. A good example is that very funny story by Joel Singer about being kissed by Abu Ala. These are things that are really the backbone of this film for us – the fear of this mortal enemy and in the end, it becomes this joke about a man who was all excited and confused by having another man kiss him on the cheek. That really for us was a big part of the process.

Is it much of a negotiation for you to get interviews and materials from both sides, given the subject?

Mor Loushy: In documentary especially, it’s real people we’re dealing with, so everything is based on the human side. “Censored Voices” opened doors for us on the Palestinian side to come and to speak to them and to really get hold of the diaries and it’s a human connection between people. Like today, I called all my [subjects in the film] just to say how it went in Sundance and what was the reaction. We keep the connection with our characters all through the process and after.

Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres in "The Oslo Diaries"What was it like sitting down with Shimon Peres? As you note in the final credits, this was his final interview.

Daniel Sivan: Shimon Peres is a politician and when we approached him, we expected to get this very standard, dry reaction of somebody that is a politician, just telling us about how he believes in peace and finish it there. But we were so surprised finding such a passionate, heartbroken, candid person, but also still an optimist. We interviewed him twice and it was absolutely inspiring because this man believed, until the day he died, we were going to achieve this peace. And when you saw him talk in such a candid and funny way, that gives us hope.

If these are the kind of politicians we had today, I’m sure we could achieve peace again. I’ll give you one quote that wasn’t in the film, and we couldn’t use it because it was just too sweet, but I love this – he said there are a lot of people who approached him throughout the years and told him, “Oh, you gave them too much. You’re a bad negotiator.” And what he said is, “What should I say? I’m the toughest negotiator? I’m not. But in love and peace, you need to be a bit blind. When you kiss someone, it can’t be with your eyes open. You can’t see it all. It’s too hard. You have to have this leap of faith saying, I’m taking the risk, I’m a bit blind. I’m choosing not to see your dark side because then I can fall in love or then I can trust you enough to make peace.” That’s, for me, Shimon Peres.

Was there anything that came up in the archival material or the present day interviews that you did that changed your thinking about what this could ultimately be?

Daniel Sivan: Basically, when we approached this film, we wanted to check why peace keeps failing. We didn’t look at it as this moment of optimism. It was clear that Oslo is going to be [viewed] as this disastrous attempt at something that never succeeded. And we did find so many moments of this hope that it’s all the more heartbreaking because when you’re looking at it, you’re saying, “Wow, I can’t believe we were there.” As an Israeli and I think for the vast majority of Israelis, this moment in the film in which Rabin and Arafat actually joke around at the Oslo Peace Signing in Washington, and they’re so friendly, it’s something that we never remember. It’s disappeared in the pages of history. But watching these moments of optimism, that really inspired us. Those were the moments we said, “Wow, we were that close.”

“The Oslo Diaries” was picked up for distribution by HBO.

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