“Cinema’s mission is to illuminate larger truths”
How director Paul Greengrass looked beyond the violence of Norway’s worst terrorist attack to make 22 July
Paul Greengrass never intended to make a film about the 22 July 2011 terrorism attacks in norway. after completing Jason Bourne, he expected to make a film about the migration crisis in europe. “I thought I was going to make something about the boats coming across the Mediterranean,” Greengrass says. Then he read the original court testimony and manifesto of anders Breivik, who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers.
“I was so struck by how [Breivik’s] opinions then had become mainstream opinions, just six or seven years later,” Greengrass says. “It was really eerie when you read it — all this stuff about elites, and how democracy is a sham.” Greengrass realised that the event could tell a wider-ranging story about the rise of the alt-right movement in europe, and began exploring the film project that became 22 July.
Having had experience in this territory (Bloody Sunday, United 93, Captain Phillips), the British director’s approach was unchanged, working closely with the families from the start. He found the survivors more open to the project than you might expect. “People who are directly affected fear their stories being forgotten,” he says. “They’re determined to find the meaning. Why did this man do this? What does it mean that these ideas are out in the world? Far from them being squeamish, their feelings are: ‘We have to confront this.’”
The depiction of the violence in the film, which sees Breivik indiscriminately gun down unarmed children, was “discussed endlessly” with the families. But again, their response was relatively surprising. “On the one hand, they said ‘You mustn’t sanitise this,’” he recalls. “They felt I would be doing them a disservice if I painted a picture of that event that did not convey something of what happened. On the other hand, they wanted it depicted in a respectful way, that does not allow people to identify a particular person or family member.” Much of the violence, he says, is restrained — “just suggestions”.
Crucially, the shootings (which only form the first act of the film) are not the focus. “The film is not about the attacks,” maintains Greengrass. “You’ve got to understand what happened, but the film is about how people in norway fought for democracy after the attacks. That’s what the theme is: how are we going to deal with the politics of division and hate?”
Greengrass accepts that it’s a sometimes harrowing watch. “listen, I know it’s pretty tough,” he says. “But I do believe that part of cinema’s mission is to hold a mirror up to the world, to see what the truths are inside a moment that illuminate larger truths. I think it’s important.”
22 July is on netflix from 10 october
Top to bottom: Director Paul Greengrass; Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli): one of the youth camp members who gets caught up in the terrorist attack; Strand Gravli gets direction from Greengrass on location.