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Director Paul Greengrass on new terrorist attack film - 'We are becoming unmoored, it's not clear where exactly we are going to end up'

Paul Greengrass's new film 22 July tells the story of the 2011 terrorist attack that killed 77 people, but the director tells Laura Harding that the story also gives us insight into a broader global picture

Urgent story: Andrea Berntzen in 22 July
Urgent story: Andrea Berntzen in 22 July
Writer and director Paul Greengrass

In 2011, the right wing Anders Breivik carried out Norway's deadliest terrorist attack, killing 69 teenagers at a youth camp on the island of Utoya. After setting off a bomb in Oslo he disguised himself as a policeman and talked his way on to a ferry, claiming he was being sent there to protect the children he went on to kill. The combined death toll for the Oslo and Utoya attacks was 77.

It is a bone-chilling start to Paul Greengrass's new film 22 July, which examines the devastation of the attacks, but also how the country came together in the aftermath. And for the filmmaker, it's an urgent story to tell.

"You've only got to look around the world, everywhere we look the hard right is on the rise," he says.

"There's a neo-Nazi party holding the balance of power in Sweden and in Austria, an extreme right-wing government in Italy, look at Tommy Robinson in the UK, Brexit, Trump, Steve Bannon.

"It's important to make the point, that by and large they don't agree with Breivik's methods, but his opinions, which in 2011 were considered marginal are today mainstream. That argument that goes on about the betrayal by the elites, that's all standard stuff.

"So I wanted to make a film that dramatised it because the story of how Norway had fought for her democracy is what the film is really about.

"It's not about the attack, although the first chunk is, but the story of how Norway fought for her democracy in the aftermath of the attacks is a story of today. It's relevant to every country."

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He made the film working closely with the families of the victims. What if they had said no? "You don't make it, it's as simple as that," he says firmly.

But they said yes. In fact they urged him to tell the story. "They understand the issues," he adds. "It's us that doesn't want to confront it because we don't want to look at these things.

"Being the victim of these attacks, you know very well what the threat is and how it's getting worse.

"I wouldn't say we are failing to learn lessons, I just think that we're in a period of immense turbulent change right now, where liberal democracy is seen as inexplicably tied up with globalisation."

That globalisation has caused economic suffering and job insecurity that stems from technical change, Greengrass says.

It has also led to huge population movements and both those factors he sees as key contributors to the populist right wing rebellion.

"We're a bit unmoored, it's not quite clear where we're going to end up."

It's not the first time the director has made a film about an atrocity that shook a nation, he is responsible for films about 9/11 (United 93) and the massacre of Irish civil rights protesters by British troops in 1972 (Bloody Sunday), as well as the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates (Captain Phillips).

But he has never thought about the link between them until this film. "I think it's part of our world, these events, and they're really, really significant moments; 9/11 marked a big sea change in our awareness of the Middle East.

"We're undergoing a similar moment now, I think people are starting to be aware now of the populist right with Trump and Brexit. As a filmmaker you try to reflect on the way the world's going.

"Sometimes you reflect on it and try and use that to feed as entertainment, commercial movies, Bourne movies; sometimes you try and do it in a more restrained and serious and unvarnished fashion. But you're always trying to reflect the world we live in."

We are talking a few days after the far-right activist and former EDL leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who goes by the name Tommy Robinson, has made a controversial appearance on Newsnight.

It has prompted a backlash against the BBC programme, with critics arguing it gave him undue prominence. "I can remember when I started this film I read Breivik's testimony in court, which we use a section of in the movie, and he comes out with all these arguments about the betrayal by the elites and the sham of democracy and the evils of multiculturalism and forced multiculturalism and so forth.

"Those opinions would have been considered marginal in 2011 but they're now mainstream. Tommy Robinson would have no problem saying it. Of course, I'm not saying he is the same as Breivik, that would be unfair.

"But he deploys the same argument and increasingly you hear these arguments in the mainstream because many millions of people agree with them.

"So we have to confront those arguments by listening to them and acknowledging that many people hold them.

"That is part of the wisdom of what Norway's story tells us.

"The prime minister says in the film 'tell him I'm listening to him'. They face this challenge in the aftermath, do they allow Breivik to speak in the court, which of course carries the risk of giving him prominence and allowing him to spread his message, that's a danger.

"But on the other hand, if you don't allow him to speak, we're not facing up to him and we're also playing into his narrative of betrayal and sham democracy, because we would be denying him his right to free speech in a court that was going to judge him.

"With great wisdom and courage, they understood that he had to be allowed to speak.

"But even more importantly, he had to be confronted with a different perspective, and that's where the young victims or survivors came in, because they went into court and confronted him and articulated a defence of liberal democracy, if you want to call it that.

"Through doing that, he was heard, confronted and beaten, both emotionally and morally and intellectually, and that's what the film's about, an inspiring story ultimately and one that's very, very relevant today because people want to feel heard.

"That's what's at the heart of a lot of this anger, the populist anger. People feel they're not being listened to, and you have to start by listening to people."

22 July is in UK cinemas and also streaming on Netflix now

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