Bi-weekly Binge: 22 July, a document of hate in post-truth world
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new - in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
The face of terrorism in Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, a Netflix original, is something we've seldom seen in cinema before. In 2018, this face is all around us, has consumed and continues to consume us, has lost the ability to confound us. Cinema, especially western cinema, has not documented this face. At least not as often as it should have. The face is white. When the Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, asks intelligence officials why a purchase made by a terrorist was not flagged when it easily could have been, the reply comes quickly – “We were focused on Islamic terrorists.”
22 July is based on the book, One of Us: The Story of the Massacre in Norway and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad - telling the story of the terrorist attack on a youth camp in Norway in July 2011, and follows the events leading up to the trial of the perpetrator, terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, claiming to be part of the far right organisation, Knights Templar, and carrying on the work of the crusades. A group of politically-inclined teenagers are gathered in the Utoya island at a camp for young adults, where evening games include 'If I were the Prime Minister'. Greengrass puts us right in the middle of the event, and the way the attack is filmed is chilling, visceral and leaves nothing to the imagination. The scenes can be triggering; they at once bring to the mind images of the attack that took place in 2011 and even remind us of American school shootings. Breivik massacres children inside the cottages and then shoots at will as they run and hide into the forest. As he unloads all his bullets into the bodies of teenagers, he shouts a warning against “elites, Marxists and liberals.”
The events in 22 July are from 2011, but watching it in 2018, Greengrass offers the most inoffensive I-told-you-so ever filmed. As we watch right-wing governments elected to power and Vladmir Putin swinging elections in first world nations, we are offered a ring-side view of how this was not impulsive and has been in the works in the most calculated manner long before Donald Trump even dreamed of running for the presidency. Breivik wants the borders closed, tougher immigration laws and he gives the Nazi salute in court. His mother is shocked by his actions, but not before asking his lawyer, “He’s kinda right, about the way the country is going, isn’t he?” The deep-rooted switch in perspective and how entrenched the hate is comes to the fore in Greengrass’s film.
Violence in this film is not used for shock value. Greengrass is not one to go for a simplistic exercise but rather to, first, show that the deadliest attacks can be carried out in full knowledge by bigots on either side of the world, who have carefully cultivated their hate and, second, to explore the trauma it can cause for a survivor. Viljar survives the attack after multiple bullets to his limbs and his head, with bullet fragments still lodged in his brain stem. For Greengrass, this becomes almost symbolic of the PTSD it leaves him with, unable to come to terms with the nature of the attack and its aftermath. We see Viljar is an enthusiastic member of the youth division of the Labour Party that was camping in the Utoya island when he is the first to rise to take part in 'If I were Prime Minister'. He talks about his liberal values, empathetic worldview and how Norway can be home to anyone that wishes to stay and how the citizens should welcome refugees.
As Breivik's arrest and subsequent trial begins, we see events from the perspective of several different people. 22 July, if nothing else, is empathetic to a fault. It focuses on the Prime Minister's helplessness, Viljar's health and recovery, and even Breivik's lawyer, Geir Lippestad, whom the terrorist handpicks because the lawyer had represented a neo-Nazi murderer in 2001. We get to see Lippestad's personal life too, the threats he receives in his home or how he is asked to find a different school for his daughter as other parents start to feel unsafe.
If one is warmed up to Greengrass by way of his Bourne films, then 22 July is at the other end of the spectrum. The cause of this film may be guns, but it uses them less and focuses on the atmosphere, the vast expanse of Scandinavian mountains and glaciers that are as cold as they are inviting. And the not-so-difficult debate between welcoming and unwelcoming, love and hate is what the film deals with. When Viljar faces up to Breivik in the trial and delivers his speech, a lesser filmmaker would have gone for a rousing finish, but 22 July is not that film nor is Greengrass that filmmaker. It cuts almost immediately to his Muslim immigrant friend smiling, and his parents and brother greeting him outside the court, saying, "Let's go home". 22 July is quiet but assertive in its proclamations for tolerance and compassion.