Paul Greengrass’ 22 July takes us through the events of the July 22, 2011, Norway attacks that left 77 people dead. As Greengrass (best known as the director of three Jason Bourne films) notes, the film is more about life in 2018 than it is about what happened in Norway in 2011. At the time, Norway attack terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s white nationalist views were considered fringe. Now, seven years later at the Toronto International Film Festival, 22 July is playing in the same theater as American Dharma, Errol Morris’ interview with Steve Bannon, a man who helped Donald Trump win the American presidency on a wave of nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric.
The first act of 22 July, which centers on the attacks, is a tough watch. What follows is Breivik’s trial, as the survivors and the country of Norway struggled with how to proceed. Do they let Breivik speak? Do they just declare him insane and move on? Are there more of him out there willing to commit similar murderous rampages?
Paul Greengrass seems worried. Really worried. (When I meet Greengrass he’s reading about the Swedish elections that had happened the day before this interview and he finds them very troubling.) Ahead, Greengrass explains why he made 22 July and the struggle he had in deciding if he wanted to depict Breivik in a film — if it somehow glorifies the whole thing. But, in the end, he says it was the victims’ families who encouraged him to make this film as a warning for what might be coming.
The first 30 minutes of this movie, the attacks, are just so overwhelming.
No, I get it. I get it. I had to think about all that before I made the movie. What I would say is that it’s not a film about the attacks, it’s a film about what happened after.
But you have to still show what happens, I understand that, but it’s horrifying.
You have to go through that experience in order to tell the story of how Norway fought for their democracy.
Is it about Norway fighting for its democracy, or is it about what’s happening in the world today?
Definitely. You’re bang on the money. A reason I made the film, we’re facing a massive right-wing and unprecedented move to the right. So to address your point about the violence, I think the violence is extremely restrained, I mean there’s very little graphic violence.
I agree, but knowing it’s a true story…
I know. A tough, tough watch. I get it. I get it. Hopefully, the fact that you didn’t walk out suggests I got that balance right because you’ve got to make it tough to understand. Then the courage of that young man and what he went through to fight back. But you do it with the permission of the families, you ask them…
Oh, so you talked to them?
Yeah. But, you know, I think that cinema does a lot of things, doesn’t it? It entertains, and that’s great.
And you’ve made a lot of entertaining movies over your career.
And I think it’s also an art form. There are filmmakers here who made some beautiful films that are about their private artistic visions but one of the things that films have to do from time to time is to get that mirror out. I mean, Hungary, Poland, Italy, the UK, the US, Brazil: we’re in dangerous territory and I made this film because a lot of it, you can see writ large in the Breivik case, and in particular, you can take inspiration from Norway.
I often wonder how much more trouble the United States would be in if Trump were also smart.
I’m not sure he’s stupid.
And maybe this is the last throw, at least for us, hopefully.
Do you reckon?
I don’t know. I’m trying to be positive.
I think he’ll be re-elected. The point is that this is more than just one man.
Where are the leaders who are gonna put these people in a box? And these ideas in a box?