Netflix is making a movie about the 22 July attacks in Oslo, and despite the winter cold tempers are flaring. The ambivalence felt towards a commercial international portrayal of the terrorist attack is widespread, and the size of the signature campaign against Paul Greengrass’s coming movie Norway says it all.
Yes, to many it’s too early. At the same time, the dramatizations of our great national tragedy are lining up. NRK is producing their own TV series, Erik Poppe is making a movie about it and a new documentary and an arthouse project are also on their way.
Why does it feel more sensitive to have a foreigner tell the 22 July story than to have a Norwegian doing so? The Norwegian Film Institute has issued an invitation to a master class with Greengrass – they’ve managed to capture him right in the middle of the hectic shooting process. A rare scoop – and a golden opportunity to find out more about the controversial project. But not only for the listeners: Greengrass himself, it turns out, also gets something special out of the encounter.
«A survivor from Utøya talks about the need to tell the story of 22 july from a different angle than that of the bird’s eye view.»
One of us
The biggest viewing room at Cinemateket is jampacked with expectant audience members – primarily young men. The British director is widely known for his contribution to the Jason Bourne-series, but my admiration for him stems from the masterpiece Bloody Sunday, about the gunning down of 28 Irish demonstrators during the conflict in Northern Ireland. A long time has passed since Greengrass made that filmic jewel, however, and the scepticism surrounding Greengrass’s 22 July dramatization has been rapidly gathering strength. The trip wires are numerous, and the director is so obviously not one of us, even if Åsne Seierstad’s eponymous book forms the basis for his movie. Whereas Poppe’s film leaves out the perpetrator, Greengrass goes in the opposite direction, and in the role as the perpetrator he has cast the dangerously charismatic and empathetic Anders Danielsen Lie. Good drama obviously relies on having a brilliant antagonist, but Danielsen Lie’s talent and magnetism may produce a seductive effect.
Overcome by my own galloping prejudice I’m considering leaving the event when Greengrass suddenly comes flying in from the movie set and stumbles heavily on the lowest step. The audience holds its breath the three milliseconds it takes before he’s back on his feet. The burly man with the wild shock of grey hair spontaneously makes his apologies and immediately scores empathy points from the audience, myself included.
The atmosphere is set. Nedin Mutic from FilmLab guides us superbly through Greengrass’s long and wide-ranging career. It isn’t his CV as a director of feature films that leaves us most impressed, however, but what Greengrass’s has emphasised in his many years as a documentary filmmaker in conflict zones; his insistent search for the truth, and the experiences that he brings with him into his next movie. Among many other episodes, Greengrass recounts the shock he felt at meeting an IRA boy roughly his same age who had shot many people at close quarters. How was that possible, considering their similar background; when they had listened to the same music and seen the same films growing up?
Film for peace
The family father and humanist Greengrass stresses how fear has crept into the family discussions with his children: , the rise of right wing extremism in the political landscape, the acts of terror hanging darkly above us. Except 22 July, says Greengrass, who insists that 22 July is unusual because the events of that day in many ways ended on a note of hope. And that is precisely the reason why it’s so important to him to broadly present the story.
The director tells excitedly about how Bloody Sunday became a part of the peace process between the British and the Irish republicans – of how arriving at a common history was necessary to build peace and a future together. The different parties to the conflict worked out the story about their tragedy together, which also entailed investigating the physical facts. How gripping and surreal isn’t it that two former enemies have built bridges to each other through creating a movie together?
Five weeks after Greengrass’s presentation, a survivor from Utøya stands in the same room talking about the need to tell the story of 22 July from a different angle than that of the bird’s eye view. About how her role as a consultant on Erik Poppe’s film can give her a tool to do just that. She needs people to understand her experience. Through portraying the event closely, the story of Utøya becomes more like her personal story.
Norway is about to get a diverse set of stories about 22 July. The documentary maker Greengrass knows the importance of emphasising the narrator’s perspective. He relates that in his high jacking story United 93, he identifies with the passenger who has no means of escaping, and views the whole situation of the lost plane as a metaphor for the condition the world is in.
Greengrass’s method is investigative and fact-based – according to him, this is what provides access to the truth. There is often a substantial divergence between what one thinks is probable and reality as it really is, he says excitedly, citing United 93 as an example (the film is based on the story about the plane that didn’t reach its designated target on September 11, 2001). Many claimed that the catering trolley was used as a battering ram to get to the hijackers in the cockpit, but later tests and conversations with aircraft personnel proved that the trolley was very heavy to manoeuvre and therefore totally unsuitable for the purpose.
Room for reflection
Greengrass’s genuine commitment and wealth of knowledge leaves the audience gripped. At the same time, my loyalty is local. Will the Englishman’s 22 July story be the death of the Norwegian stories? Have we given away both the money – through the incentive scheme – and the opportunity to influence the first impressions of the trauma to an international audience? It’s impossible to say. The race on who will reach Norwegian audiences first, however, has already been won: Poppe’s film will premiere in Norwegian cinemas as early as 9 March 2018.
«In his role as the perpetrator, the dangerously charismatic and empathetic Anders Danielsen Lie can produce a seductive effect. »
But the meeting with Greengrass leaves room for thought – for seeing limitations as opportunities in the search for truth; for believing that you can make a difference. The Bloody Sunday director also pumps himself up by sharing his philosophy and method. The next day the press is in uproar: Greengrass has placed a white van in front of the Cabinet Building. According to the tabloids, he didn’t have the permission to do so. The conversation about the indisputable facts of events has apparently made Greengrass go further than he’d first thought. There we also got the answer of why an international master director has taken the time to meet the Norwegian audience in the middle of the shooting: It’s we who have given him a story about terrorism that ends with a note of hope. Perhaps you have to come from the outside to grasp this unique aspect of the story.