Filmmaker Paul Greengrass on the important lessons of 22 July

by Andrew Parker

Renowned British filmmaker Paul Greengrass is no stranger to depicting real life traumas and tragedies on screen, but his latest feature as a writer and director, 22 July (opening in select cities and available on Netflix starting on Wednesday, October 10), finds the Oscar nominee tackling some of his most politically, morally, socially, and emotionally taxing material to date.

22 July takes a look at one of the largest, deadliest, and most reprehensible mass shootings in world history. It’s an intense and in-depth examination of the perpetration of and fall out from a series of Oslo terrorist attacks, carried out by a white, right wing extremist (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), which included a mass shooting at an island based youth leadership camp. After he’s taken into custody alive by the authorities, the Neo-Nazi’s rampage had killed 77 people and wounded 200 others, most of them defenceless teenagers. The shooter decides to turn his day in court into a media circus, forcing an unwilling, but duty bound labor party lawyer (Jon Oigarden) into defending his freedom of speech and turning the trial into a delivery tool for his hateful, arrogant propaganda. At the same time, one of the victim’s of the shooting (Jonas Strand Gravli) recovers from his trauma by trying to summon the courage to testify against the man who nearly took his life.

Greengrass (perhaps best known for United 93, Captain Phillips, and the successful Jason Bourne franchise) adapts writer Åsne Seierstad’s book One of Us for 22 July’s multi-perspective look at unspeakable violence born from nationalist fear being refuted by the tenets of a properly functioning democratic society and the tireless efforts of young people to stand up and make their country a better place.

It’s a subject that Greengrass is clearly passionate about, and one that the filmmaker believes acts as a perfect reflection of where society is headed across Europe and North America. During our thirty minute conversation on a rainy morning at a downtown Toronto hotel days after the film’s North American premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, the passionate, but soft-spoken and well reasoned Greengrass wants to emphasize how the lessons learned in the wake of the Norway attacks are more important to pay attention to now than ever.

We were honoured to spend time with Greengrass to talk about the delicate nature of depicting large scale traumas on screen, why young people are our hope for a better future, the rise of the Alt-Right across the world, maintaining dignity and objectivity in the face of obvious, unrepentant evil, and why coming up with the script for 22 July was one of the hardest things he’s ever attempted.

Paul Greengrass (left) on the set of 22 July

You’re responsible for one of my favourite scenes of all time in any film. It’s one of the moments at the end of Captain Phillips when the hostage situation has ended, the title character gets off the boat, and this wave of shock immediately overtakes him. I think that 22 July takes that feeling of trauma one step further, since the mass shooting happens so early on and is so brief that the rest of the film feels like being in a state of shock.

Paul Greengrass: Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. They certainly feel similar if you’ve been through it, but there’s one exception here that makes it feel like something beyond, and that’s everything that happened next. There were other traumas that were being piled on, and the film that I wanted to make was not about the attacks themselves.

I wanted to make a story about how – in Norway – they fought for their democracy in the shadow of a horrendous, right-wing terror attack, and in particular how young people fought for that. I wanted to do that because I thought it was an inspiring story of people in that society at that point in time, but more importantly it’s a story about all of us now. We’re all facing this threat across Europe and across the U.S. Just last night, a socially democratic country like Sweden turned out in droves to elect members of what’s essentially a Neo-Nazi party. It’s a big, big problem, and young people are going to have to face it.

Of course, I wanted it to tackle the aftermath of the attacks and all of the shock that arose from it, but I always wanted to show how with great difficulty, without sentimentality, without making it feel easy, and without pretending that there can’t be hope without loss, that the people of Norway constructed ways of confronting and defeating someone like Breivik. That’s the story of today and tomorrow.

And it’s something that probably only grew more timely as you were making it. You were almost definitely working on this while the Parkland, Florida shootings happened, and that was a case where young people used their trauma to speak up for themselves.

Paul Greengrass: Absolutely. It was young people who were targeted, and it was young people who were fighting back.

The film is also a picture of absolute evil being given a platform for their beliefs. That has to be daunting as a filmmaker because how do you create something that can even come close to approximating the same sort of evil in real life? Is there a morality there that you have to wrestle with at first as a filmmaker?

Paul Greengrass: You’re absolutely right. That was a big issue. I think there is an argument that people have, I think, that to depict a figure like this and allow him to advance his arguments is to somehow encourage him and those who sympathize with him. I definitely thought about that right from the outset. In the end, I came strongly to the view that that was not correct, and there were several reasons for that.

Were Breivik to have been an isolated figure, then I think such an argument would have a lot more power to it. But Breivik wasn’t an isolated figure. He was part of the birth of the Alt-Right, which happened in Europe. People associate it with America, but it began in Europe, and it’s very strong there. It’s why Steve Bannon is there all the time. And if he wasn’t isolated then, he for sure isn’t isolated now. This is the grave new threat. We talk about a Neo-Nazi party swaying the balance of power in Sweden after last night’s elections. In Germany, there’s a substantial rise in the AfD, particularly when it comes to their youth division. Last week, they were put under surveillance by government authorities for suspicion of anti-democratic activities. Italy, Poland, the UK, the U.S., Charlottesville, wherever you look, the fire is burning.

To close our eyes and our minds to what’s happening and to not look at these issues in our cinema is to adopt the wrong argument. We need to look at these people. We need to look them in the eyes and hold them accountable. That’s what the people of Norway found out and what they did.

It was interesting when I got into the details of what happened after the shooting and at the trial to see how they weighed that argument. Do we give him a public trial? Do we give him a voice? And in the end, the Prime Minister, and by extension the people, said “tell him I’m listening to him.” They came to the view that it was the unwillingness to listen that was part of the problem. You have to let him speak, and then and only then can you find ways of countering that, which is why the young people were so crucial to this. They went into the courtroom and confronted him with a different world view; one that had hope, humanity, and the future in mind. That’s why I thought that this story of Norway then is the story of all of us today and tomorrow.

Something else that the film does speak to very well is how the victims of a crime on this kind of reprehensible level can feel like they’re being condescended to once the perpetrator is given a chance to speak their mind in front of a national audience. We know this person did this crime. There’s no ambiguity. He’s proud of the blood that he’s shed. And in the film, you show how they feel like they’re being talked down to by being granted the same amount of time as someone who’s patently guilty. What was the delicacy in depicting that aspect of the shooting’s aftermath?

Paul Greengrass: When Viljar and Lara sat in the courtroom, they were only as far away from Breivik as we are from that door over there. It was intense. The courage needed to confront a man who shot you five times and nearly killed you is overwhelming. People remembered Viljar and his testimony so clearly because he found a way to get under Breivik’s skin and defeat him. There’s something about his arguments, the way he carried himself, and the fact that he made this terrible man laugh while he was on the witness stand that morally defeated Breivik and showed him the bankruptcy of his arguments. In the end, this nationalistic, nativist, tribalist, populist argument needs to be made isolated. In that sense, again, the delicacy comes from the strength of these young people, especially Viljar, and what they constantly had to endure.

Viljar, in his testimony, painted a picture of a different world view, and by spending so much time with him before, during, and after these horrible events, that counterpoint is made apparent. That delicacy was created by the people who lived through it themselves and through their immense courage.

You’ve made films before about people who’ve lived through harrowing, traumatic events, but this finds you dealing with the largest tragedy your films have depicted to date. Across your career, how have you been able to depict people who have been through mass trauma, and has it changed at all over the years?

Paul Greengrass: First of all and from my point of view, I think that cinema does many things. It’s principal mission is to entertain. That goes back maybe a hundred years or more. Cinema was the cheap entertainment choice for people who were living unbelievably hard lives. They went to a movie theatre to escape those lives for two hours. It’s a nobel mission, in my view. I love those kinds of movies just as much as anyone, and I’ve had the privilege of making a few of those kinds of films, too.

It’s also an artform. Individual filmmakers will explore subjects that belie a private preoccupation. I love those films, too.

But I also think that cinema, from time to time, has to do something different. It has to hold a mirror up to the world and show where we are and where we’re going. That’s something that I’ve occasionally tried to do.

For me, doing such films is all about finding a moment, where if you look at it unflinchingly, honestly, fairly, and truthfully, and you look at the granular details, you can see the DNA of our times. Obviously, I did that with United 93 and this film more than any others that I’ve worked on, and they’re still probably the most emotionally charged films that I’ve worked on.

In terms of what you learn and the people that you deal with when making films about these topics, it all begins with the people who lived through it. You ask for their permission. That’s most important. It’s as simple as that. If they don’t want you to make it, you move on. But I’m always struck by how readily people in these situations encourage you because they don’t want what happened to be forgotten. They want people to understand its true meaning.

You have to make it with appropriate restraint, sensitivity, dignity, and all the rest, but you also have to look at the fundamental, burning sense of making sure that what happened means something. That’s something that people keep telling me again and again. It’s such a strong feeling. I felt it first with United 93, and I feel it again with this film.

The film really speaks to how people can sometimes be caught between their own core beliefs and the side of the argument that they find themselves on because of those beliefs. In the case of 22 July, the film boasts the point of view of a fascinating figure in Geir Lippestad, the left leaning attorney who believes in freedom of speech, that’s chosen by Breivik as his attorney. He doesn’t agree with his client, and he’s duty bound by law to provide him with a defense, despite the obvious toll it takes on himself and his family. What was it like looking at these same arguments that we’ve been discussing through the eyes of a person in such a complex situation?

Paul Greengrass: He has to convey himself with professionalism, clarity, and dignity throughout this, until the very end, and you can really only see that duality behind his eyes. I agree that he’s fascinating. The real Geir Lippestad is an extraordinary man. He had this nightmarish professional responsibility to defend a man who commited a nightmarish, heinous, indefensible crime, and he shocked his nation in the process. He was straight off in a terrible place, himself.

He symbolized the way that Norway fought for their legal processes. If we are to respond successfully to this far-right insurgency that is raging across the west, the strength of our institutions and the strength of our commitment to the rule of law is going to be one of the ways we fight back. Those pillars must not cave in to these challenges. I thought that Lippestad and all of the other lawyers and judges involved in the trial were absolutely brilliant in the way that they fashioned due process that was fair, appropriate, and wasn’t hurried. They weighed all the issues appropriately, even when the things being said by Breivik were patently incendiary and false.

And how do you put a patently political act of violence on trial? Here was someone who was committed to a cause that most people would find abhorrent, but he had to be allowed to speak and explain why he did it. The court had to hear it and take it seriously, and then judge it to be his true motivations. They had to take in the frightening evidence that showed he was not alone in those views. Although the actions were singular, his world view was not.

And all of that will bring viewers to the final scene of the film, and the weight lifts somewhat. That’s actually my favourite moment in the film, alongside the testimonies of Viljar and Lara. Their victory is partial and at horrendous cost, and it’s a victory in a battle, not a war. Those final scenes say the most about where we are, and the strength of human beings like these young people and like Lippestad.

One of the problems I think that centrist politicians have is that they haven’t listened to people who feel like they’ve been excluded. They’ve not thought deeply enough about how globalization is viewed by some as tearing apart people’s lives. The exact opposite of not listening is extremism. That’s where this right-wing, populist insurgency becomes the result of that. We’ve got to think much, much more carefully about how we protect people in communities and societies from feeling excluded, while also partaking in all the great things that can arise from globalization. But we’ll never succeed by not paying attention.  Those issues are there at the heart of the film. I found it endlessly instructive to look at Norway and their fights, and to take those lessons and make people think about them.

You have a reputation as being a very visually guided filmmaker, but the script you produced from adapting Åsne Seierstad’s book One of Us is your most intricate work to date as a writer. You can show people struggling to come up with the words to express how their feeling on a visual level through performance and framing, but what’s the challenge of having to come up with those words when it comes time for that expression?

Paul Greengrass: It’s tricky. It was the trickiest thing I’d ever done.

I suppose, like anything, you have to start with the big picture. This isn’t about the attacks, but what happens after the attacks. You have to keep in mind the foundations of a civilized world, and it seems to me – and this isn’t any sort of hierarchy, but just sort of the order they come to me in my mind – they are political leadership that holds itself deeply personally and emotionally accountable to its people, leaders who are willing to leave no stone unturned when it comes to discovering what went wrong, and crucially the ability to say that one is sorry and to mean it. Out of those comes a stronger sense of the process one needs to take when telling a story like this.

In many ways, the story came together by thinking a lot about the work done by Jens Stoltenberg, who now runs NATO, but was Norway’s Prime Minister when this all happened. He did a remarkable job, and although he was voted out, he remains a much loved figure in Norway. He always had to come up with the right words for the situation. He practiced democracy in a correct and humble way. He’s not front and centre for much of the film, but you can hopefully feel his point of view throughout. Democracies can falter when put under pressure by a grievous act of violence, but what counts is the belief that your leaders are with you in a time of need.

Stoltenberg found the words. Words in a democracy are really, really important. You’ve had attacks here in Toronto, and I’m sure your leaders struggled to come up with the words for such acts. All politicians when faced with a crisis are taxed with coming up with these words with varying degrees of success. I kind of had to think about what the difficulty of that was like throughout the writing process. Even with good hearts, it’s a struggle to find the right words to say, and it’s the rare leaders who do that. We can think of Churchill in 1940 or Roosevelt in the 30s as the best examples. We only see Stoltenberg for a few moments at a time in this film, but his few words mean a lot to so many people. That’s hard to approximate. It’s hard to find simple words to approximate how so many people are feeling.

The politician’s story was a huge part of creating the base for everything else in the film. It’s a very emotional story. From there it leads you into the practice of the law, which is the other major part of democratic society. Once you take that look at due process, then you can take a look at the more personal side of the attacks and what it means to those who directly lived through it or died during it. These stories can always start at a certain larger level, but they always have to boil down to a story of a single man or woman who will go through all of these higher levels to confront and beat the people who hurt them. Once you go from the top down, and then back up again, you can find the words of the individuals.

Writing the screenplay itself once I had knowledge of everything that happened and the people who survived was less of a factual exercise and more of an exercise in finding the emotional truth. It is factual and it’s adhering to those key elements, but out of that you’re trying to fashion a synthesis that will give you emotional truth, and a sense of where we are in the face of the world today.

Young people have to fight for the world they want to live in. It’s something that our parents and grandparents knew and understood. I don’t mean by force of arms, specifically, but something that was very present in my mind when I made this film over the last twelve months was thinking about how my parents and grandparents lived through the 1930s and 1940s. They saw and lived through what happens when nationalism and protectionism becomes unconstrained and gets out of the box. They ended up in an immense war; a global catastrophe of death and destruction. That generation before I was born pledged themselves in 1945 to build a world where nationalism would be constrained in every democracy, whether it’s Canada, the U.S., Britain, or all across Europe. They wanted to create stability and rationality. There was a structure between nations to help constrain such extremism from taking root. That was the world I had always lived in. That world has been under a severe test since 2008. The anchors are being ripped out that secure that order. It’s for my children’s generation to fight their way through finding new ways from constraining populism and not allowing those dark forces out of the box.

Right now, the box is open, and those demons are coming out of the box. There’s a Neo-Nazi party that’s holding sway over votes in Sweden. I think your readers, if they ever think of Sweden, think of it as being this small country that’s an exemplary, balanced, moderate, socially democratic country. There’s now a Neo-Nazi party holding that balance of power in their hands. These are the kinds of things we need to be thinking about going forward. It’s unbelievable, but we need to start believing it.

22 July opens in theatrically in select cities and is available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, October 10, 2018.

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