Myriam Ben Salah: The Goodness Regime explores the foundations of the ideology and self-image of modern Norway – from the Crusades to the adventures of Fridtjof Nansen and the diplomatic theatre of the Oslo Peace Accords. It is a sharp and satirical deconstruction of the arcane of national myth building. The work also relates tangentially to the Middle-East and to the Israel/Palestine situation in particular. What brought you both to that specific geographical and political context?
Jumana Manna & Sille Storihle: We had both recently completed our undergraduate degree in Norway, and were looking at the country we left from Los Angeles, our new home at the time. We wanted to discuss Norwegian political rhetoric, how criticism is, or is not, dealt with: both in regards to state politics and within the cultural scene.
The Oslo Accords — a truce agreement signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) resulting from eight months of secret backchannel negotiations facilitated by Norway — was a probable candidate for our collaboration. Being a shared historical moment, that had very different impacts on the places we come from: Sille from Norway and Jumana, a Palestinian raised in Israel, we found the accords to be a potent starting point for our discussion. On the one hand, the handshake was a shining moment in Norway's diplomatic history, and on the other a disaster for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
We wanted to unpack the complexities of this contradiction and the moral dilemmas of third party intervention and its responsibilities, without assuming that the failure was a result of cynical manipulation by Norway. Our main focus was on how this event figured smoothly into Norway’s image of goodness, and its role as a humanitarian superpower often involved in conflict resolution and peace-making in developing countries such as Palestine. In this sense, the Oslo Accords remained at the core of the project, rather than tangentially related to it.
Early on in our research, we came across Norwegian historian and Middle East scholar Hilde Henriksen Waage’s essay “Postscript to Oslo: The Mystery of Norway’s Missing Files,” which reveals that the entirety of the files from the process’s backchannel negotiations had gone missing from the Norwegian government archives. The essay criticizes the ideology that absolved Norway of any responsibility for the results of the Oslo Accords and investigates the dangers of third-party mediation in highly asymmetrical power relations. The missing backchannel papers became key in our conception of the work, prompting us to create a film, an alternative document.
MBS: How did the project come together formally as this experimental semi-fictional documentary instead of a pure fiction for example?
JM & SS: The material of our research — governmental and national archives, interviews with politicians and researchers, and so forth — would more obviously lend itself to a documentary than to a fiction. So the question could also be, why did we not do a straightforward documentary rather than this theatrical staging with children?
The Oslo Accords have often been referred to as a theatre. In his article, The Morning After, Edward Said called the ceremony, a “degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for the suspension of most of his people’s rights, and the fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance, like a 20th-century Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance.” Moreover, it was the ideological transmission of history through generations, packaged narratives that are taught and performed on school stages that we wanted to capture, more so than a presentation of facts.
We conceived having children act out political events as an allegory of Norway, which is seen (and sees itself) as this small, harmless nation which came to help after all other attempts failed. The children dressed as crusaders, travelling to an imaginary holy land, is a satire on the protestant enlightenment ethic embodied in missionary work, upon which the ethics and politics of aid work rests. At the end of The Goodness Regime, the protagonists return home to a small wooden house, uncertain about their achievements, after discovering that the implementation of these ideals does not always bring the desired results.
In an iconic scene from Notre Musique, Godard tells a group of students that in 1948, the Jews “walked out of the water into the Holy Land — The Palestinians walked into the water, the Jews became the stuff of fiction, the Palestinians became a documentary.” Suggesting that Palestine, or the Palestinians cannot afford the luxury of playing with images. We wanted to challenge this divide, and turn the Palestinian landscape into a fictional backdrop, upon which the scenes of history unfold.
MBS: The metaphor of politics as a theatre becomes literal within the film: political stages, roles and scenes are looked at through the very empirical spectrum of theatre itself, combining children's performances with archive sound recordings. This «mise en abîme» through theatre raises the questions of representation in politics and the absurd falsity of the game. Can you develop the choice of these semi-bored enactments by children combined with archival material?
JM & SS: On the White House lawn at the 1993 signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, president Bill Clinton proclaims “Let us dedicate ourselves today to your region’s next generation. In this entire assembly, no one is more important than the group of Israeli and Arab children who are seated here with us today.” Seven years later, former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik begins his New Year’s address to the nation with: “A new millennium is ahead of us, like a newborn baby”. We decided to include these two sounds clips in the work, amongst others, as voice overs, because they exemplify the way the image of the child is used as a ‘promise for the future’, a justification for the actions undertaken by politicians. The kids’ partial disengagement became crucial to us. They perform, obey the instructions of the theatre directors, carry on the tradition, but also debunk it with their indifference.
MBS: The title of the film is a reference to several researches made about Norway’s politics and cultural history from Terje Tvedt’s Foreign Aid, Foreign Policy and Power: The Norwegian model and Nina Witoszek’s The Origins of the Regime of Goodness. How did these texts feed your research and what perspectives did they open?
JM & SS: Terje Tvedt helped us articulate what The Regime of Goodness is and how it came into being. In his words, it is “a regime that is exercising the myth of Norwegians as the Good Samaritans of the world — an apparatus that perpetuates the image of Norway as a nation of peace and a humanitarian superpower”. It allowed us zoom out from the case of the Oslo Accords, and gain a clearer understanding of the ideology that enabled the secret backchannel process to take place in Norway. Nina Witoszek’s tracing of the origins of this regime guided us in mapping out the various national heroes, landscapes and fairy tales that would be acted out by the kids. Having said this, the film does not attempt to illustrate the theories put forward by these researchers. We found The Regime of Goodness to be a fruitful framework to think through a project that tries to capture a collective psyche of a nation.
Following the research we embarked on making our film, and the rather metaphoric, ‘non-discursive’ nature of The Goodness Regime, we desired to expand more concretely upon the pitfalls and aftermath of the Accords, and the contradictions of Norway’s politics. This eventually took the form of a series of essays and interviews by/with a selection of writers with whom we were in dialogue during the creation of the work that we recently launched as an online publication: thegoodnessregime.com/text
This collection of texts are meant to provide different entry points to understanding some of the changes that have taken place in the political landscapes of the Middle East and Europe since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, as well as an analysis of some of the consequences of the Accords today.
MBS: Norway’s case is an allegory for contemporary «nation branding» policies. What do you think about the way such practices expand in today’s world?
JM & SS: It is difficult for us to speak about today’s world at large. The nation branding that was going on – and is less evident today – was very specific to Norway in the 1990s and 2000s. The Cold War had come to an end, Norway’s security concerns that had been directed towards the Soviet Union and fear of nuclear power was no longer pressing, the country needed to formulate a new foreign policy that would establish it as a player in the new world order. Norway’s currency, as a small nation, allegedly without a colonial past, branded itself as a peace and human rights advocate: this was the role it would take on in the international stage, a role some believed superpowers such as the US could not play.
Those two decades were the period we grew up in. A period of naïve “peace camps”, and “leadership” educational frameworks which we were invited to partake in as teenagers; a belief in and inter-faith, inter-cultural dialogue familiar to us both. These things made us feel like the kids in our film: momentarily enthusiastic, and mostly bored. Peace as export today, however, no longer seems to be as a strong of a brand as when we grew up.