TORONTO – With handheld cameras in tow, Paul Greengrass has headed straight into real-life horrors to make visceral, immersive fiction films: a 1972 massacre in North Ireland (“Bloody Sunday”), the September 11 terrorist attacks (“United 93”) and the Somali hijacking of a cargo ship (“Captain Phillips”).
His latest, “22 July,” recreates the 2011 attacks in Oslo and at the Norwegian summer camp Utoya where 77 were killed and 110 were injured by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. While Greengrass opens “22 July” with the bombing and shooting, the movie is really about the attack’s aftermath. Breivik’s trial — and the intolerant, anti-multiculturalism ideology he espouses — tests Norway’s democracy.
“It’s about how Norway fought for their democracy in the shadow of a right-wing insurgency,” says Greengrass. “It’s a film about Norway then but it’s actually about us today or tomorrow.”
“22 July,” which debuted Wednesday on Netflix and in select theatres, is for the 63-year-old British filmmaker about a growing, global battle, in microcosm. In an interview last month, Greengrass spoke about “22 July” and the future of democracy.
“We’re being tested,” he said. “Democracy doesn’t just happen. It has to be won on the level of ideas. It has to be fought for.”
AP: Do you consider “United 93” and “22 July” linked in any way?
Greengrass: They’re tough making these films. “22 July” and “United 93,” in my mind I saw them as different films but related. I’m not saying, ‘Poor me.’ You try to do the absolute best you can by those people, by your craft, to make the best, most responsible, most serious film you can make once you’ve said to yourself and answered the question: Is this a necessary film to make? I’ve tried my best to be dispassionate and compassionate. Whether it’s ’93’ or this, it’s an isolated moment and if you look at it in its granular detail, it’s like looking at it through a microscope. You see the world writ large, the DNA of where we are today.
AP: What initially led you to making a film about the Norway attacks?
Greengrass: I had wanted to make a film about the migration crisis. I looked at the runs by which they come in through Europe: through Greece and Lesbos, from Syria and the North African ones. I spent quite a bit of time with the boats and the rest of it, trying to figure out a movie with that as a backdrop. But the more I did it, it became overwhelmed by the bigger story, which was Brexit in my country — and the rhetoric of Brexit — and Trump, obviously. It became obvious to me that the film was not about the migrant experience. The story was about what was happening to the politics in the West. We were witnessing a huge counter-reaction to globalization.
AP: So you turned to Breivik as a symbol of this shift.
Greengrass: What he thought he was doing was striking a blow and raising the standard of rebellion and that people would follow him. It was very much the same idea as the hijackers on 9-11. I came in the office one day and read his testimony in court — some of which is in the film. It was absolutely chilling. I remember it so vividly sitting there thinking: These opinions, when he uttered them in the court, would have been considered them outrageous and outre, as they were. But they’re now mainstream. There is nothing about his worldview or his arguments or his rhetoric that a mainstream populist right-wing politician does not espouse. That’s when I thought: I need to make this film.
AP: The film’s hard-to-watch first section depicts the shooting at Utoya. What was your thought process in showing that?
Greengrass: I hope I handled it with great restraint. I felt it was necessary to depict graphically what happened to Viljar Hanssen because he’s the central character of the film and his journey toward confronting Breivik rests on him having the courage after being shot five times, including in the head, to go and talk to him about it. I did it with his permission after talking about it with him very great detail. The rest of it, I discussed it with the family support group. A gentleman in a meeting with about a hundred people got up and he said, “I lost my daughter. I want you to make this film because I want people to understand what’s happening in the world today.” And he said: “I don’t want you to sanitize what happened.”
AP: Some have expressed misgivings that “22 July” gives Breivik another platform.
Greengrass: I had to think — and I think this is an important issue — do you by making this film make the problem worse? If Breivik had been a lone wolf with no one else having those views, that would be one thing. But the truth is Breivik was part of an alt-right undergrowth. It was in the margins, largely unseen because people didn’t want to look at them. Now, not only is his rhetoric and the worldview mainstream, but now Sweden, AFD in Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungry, the U.S., Charlottesville. The fire is burning. To pretend we make it better by closing our eyes to it is wrong. We have to confront this.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP