Column: Netflix’s ‘The Girl From Oslo’ is an Israeli-Norwegian thriller with a San Diego connection
Tense hostage negotiations. Close to cliffhanger escapes and rescues. Secrets that could rock several worlds.
These and other dramatic developments have helped propel Netflix’s new thriller “The Girl From Oslo” to fourth place in the streaming service’s Top 10 most-watched series. But one of the biggest surprises of “The Girl From Oslo” is that this TV collaboration between an Israeli cable company and a Norwegian media group has its creative roots in San Diego.
The 10-episode series about three young tourists kidnapped while vacationing in Egypt was co-created and co-written by Israeli screenwriter Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, who wrote the series during her first stint as a visiting professor at the San Diego State University. .
“San Diego has something very calm about it. For me, the ocean and the weather and the new people I met, it was inspiring,” said Weiss-Berkowitz, who taught screenwriting at SDSU in Spring 2019 and Fall 2021 as part of the university’s Visiting Israeli Artists Program.
“Sometimes when you look at issues, problems and dilemmas from afar, it can give you a new perspective.”
For Weiss-Berkowitz, the “Girl From Oslo” adventure began with a phone call from an Israeli producer. He was trying to launch the first-ever TV co-production between Israel and Norway – did Weiss-Berkowitz have any ideas for a series?
“I said, ‘No, but give me two days,'” Weiss-Berkowitz said in a Zoom interview from his home in Tel Aviv. “And when I thought of a connection between Israel and Norway, I thought of the Oslo talks.”
In 1993, members of the Israeli government and leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization met in Oslo for talks that led to the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians intended to bring peace in the Middle East.
The talks were a historic moment in world history, but Weiss-Berkowitz was less interested in the global drama than she was in the supporting cast.
“I didn’t want to do anything about the negotiations or what happened in the room. It’s not my material. I thought about what had happened outside the room. And then I started thinking about three young people – Arik, Alex and Layla.
When “The Girl From Oslo” kicks off, Arik, Alex, and Layla are no longer the outsiders they were when they first met in 1993. Arik has risen from low-level officials to higher levels of the Israeli government . Alex went from driving dignitaries around Oslo to a career in journalism. Layla was a Palestinian translator, and now she’s a doctor.
In the first episode, the long estranged friends are reunited by kidnapping in the Sinai desert. Alex’s daughter, Pia, is one of the three kidnapped tourists. When Alex finds out that Pia’s first stop was Israel, she flies to Tel Aviv to meet Arik. Government negotiations are tricky and slow, so an impatient Alex stalks Layla, hoping to make inroads with the Hamas community.
“The story of the kidnapping, the countdown, the tense negotiations, that’s the dramatic part of the show,” said Weiss-Berkowitz, who is one of the founders of the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television. in Jerusalem, and whose screenplay credits include the popular Israeli series “A Touch Away.”
“But the beating heart is the conflict between all the hidden agendas. It’s about how the secrets of the past become the lies of the present.
The 30-minute episodes move from one biting storyline to the next at breakneck speed, as the three adults attempt to save the young hostages while battling compromised bureaucrats, ruthless radicals, and their own tangled histories.
But if the on-screen results left nervous viewers clutching their remotes, Weiss-Berkowitz has nothing but warm memories for the low-key process that made all this high-flying action possible.
“The Norwegian production company sent my co-writer (Kyrre Holm Johannessen, who also co-created the show) to San Diego for a week. He was also a long way from home, and we just spent days walking around Balboa Park and the ocean and talking about families. It was very refreshing.
“I became an ambassador for San Diego,” Weiss-Berkowitz said with a distant chuckle. “The sea lions and the seals and the beach, it was like a spell for me. Something good happened to me there. I slept very well and I wrote and I was creative .
Weiss-Berkowitz hopes to return to San Diego for another teaching internship at SDSU, where she was particularly impressed with the diversity of the student population. She’s currently working on a new streaming series that she can’t talk about, but she’s happy to revel in the global success of a show that took place in San Diego but definitely didn’t stay here.
“If you write about something you know locally, it can be universal. But for me, it was a big surprise,” Weiss-Berkowitz said of the impressive early audience for “The Girl From Oslo,” which was released in late December.
“We know that viewers love thrillers, but I hope they find other layers in the show. The landscape and the sequestration are the attractive layer of it. Then you see there may be more behind that.
“The Girl From Oslo” is streaming on Netflix.