When The Bourne Supremacy filmmaker Paul Greengrass announced he would make a three-part Netflix series about the tragic terrorist attack in Norway on July 22, 2011, it could have spelt disaster for Norwegian director Erik Poppe, already immersed in his own film about the terrifying events.
But when we caught up with Poppe, 58, in Macao this week where his own Utoya: July 22 was screened in the Best of Fest Panorama International Film Festival & Awards Macao, he is sanguine.
“Paul isn’t from Norway, so he made a very different choice to me,” says Poppe who learned about Greengrass’ rival project from One of Us author Asne Seierstad, whose book provides the template for the Greengrass version, 22 July.
“Asne told me first and Paul told me just a couple of months before I was set to film mine. Paul’s film is about the perpetrator and, for me, there’s nothing new in that story; there’s nothing new in Asne’s book, although it is important to know why the perpetrator did what he did, so I hope Paul’s film helps fill in the whole story.
“I’ve seen Paul’s version and I think it’s the most ‘Hollywood’ version of films he’s ever done,” continues Poppe. “He has fictionalised the story so much so that if you don’t know what really happened, then you might believe this Netflix version is the truth because they introduce it as a true story. That’s the reason why people in Scandinavia are so upset about the Netflix version…”
However, Poppe also concedes that “Paul is a wonderful person and a wonderful filmmaker.”
A former Reuters journalist/news photographer, Poppe decided to make a career change when he was hospitalised for three months after contracting an infection while on assignment in Columbia. “I was covering conflicts in South America at a time when they had begun changing their attitude toward journalists and were starting to kidnap them. I started to wonder whether it was even worth it.
“I also wanted to regain control over my life rather than travelling all the time,” says Poppe who also covered conflicts in Cambodia , Laos, Middle East and South Africa.
Consulting with the filmmakers who he had met during his news career, he decided to launch a new chapter as a filmmaker himself and was accepted into the University College of Film in Stockholm, aged 28, where he studied for four years.
“I went back home and sold everything I had and moved to Sweden. I wanted to put my old career behind me and start over again,” recalls Poppe who went on to make his feature film debut with Bunch of Five in 1998, directing his first English language film in 2013 with A Thousand Times Good Night starring Juliette Binoche and Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, about a war photographer’s struggle at home.
Poppe was driving back to his office in Oslo when the terrible events of July 22, 2011 began to unfold, beginning with a car bomb and resulting in the massacre of 69 people – mostly teenagers – on the tiny Norwegian island of Utoya. “I was gathered with my friends watching the events unfold on TV where everything was broadcast live on TV channels all over the world. It was the largest terror attack on European soil since World War II; a massive terror attack perpetrated by one single person, a right-wing extremist, on such a peaceful place. We had Norwegian troops in Afghanistan at that time and we were taking part in several wars, so we had good reason for people to attack us although it turned out that was not the case,” he recalls.
“Everybody in Norway knew someone who was effected by the events. I knew several parents who had kids at Utoya because we are such a small country. So many people knew someone who knew someone affected by this because there were kids from all over Norway taking part in this camp,” he says, explaining how it was a peaceful camp of democratic youth.
“It wasn’t a left-wing or communist gathering. Very moderate. Just young people interested in the future and wanting to make their world a better place. They represented the best in all of us, and they were the ones who were killed.”
For the next few years, he says, “We had the perpetrator in court expressing all these crazy ideas. We learned everything about him but, also, I was sensing that we never really learned what was actually happening on the island. I’d seen so many movies about events like this which always just focussed on the perpetrator. I’ve seen those movies and they haven’t been able to change me and probably haven’t been able to change the world.
“I was compelled to see if I could change the focus; change the perspective which led me to want to tell the story from the victim’s point of view and tell the story differently.”
Poppe’s film received an overwhelming positive response when it played in competition at Berlinale earlier this year. “There were 1,400 journalists crowded at the festival palace in Berlin, all discussing their anger afterwards. It wasn’t just about my film, but it made them feel so angry having finally really understood what actually happened on that day. It was the first time many of these journalists had seen a film which was so emotionally powerful; something other than a normal film.
“One journalist said that it was the first time he had seen a film in decades where he felt re-sensitised about violence. We see violence all the time in film and on news so that we have all stopped reacting. We have all become so accustomed to violence, but my film reached audiences in a whole other way.”
Poppe confesses that it hadn’t even occurred to him to make a film about July 22, 2011 until three years ago. “We had all been watching the court trial and still didn’t fully understand what had happened. I also felt like the survivors had yet to be given any sort of understanding. I don’t think anyone really realised what they had been through and that made me feel very concerned.”
His final impetus to make the film came when some of the survivors contacted him personally. “They told me – ‘If you want to make a movie about this, we will support you. We want you to tell it as truthfully as possible’.”
To this end, he gathered together a group of survivors and also presented it to the families who lost loved ones. “I told them that I wanted to present it entirely from the victim’s point of view. This made it possible to put the project together and work without anyone knowing what we were doing for a couple of years until the news broke.
“The reason my film worked for so many people in Norway and around the world is not so much my effort or contribution but it’s the truthfulness and the honesty which has the greatest impact. That’s not my impact – but the people’s contribution.”
Poppe’s film is a moving testament to the young people caught in the crosshairs and the resourcefulness and kindness they employ in the face of the bullets with barely a glimpse of the perpetrator, whose name is irrelevant to his narrative.
Shot in a single 72-minute take five times over five days, Poppe’s film is a shockingly visceral experience which at once hurls us into the awful drama which took place on one infamous day on July 22, 2011. As rounds explode around them, the kids watch their friends die and help each other to find safety as we, the audience, join them in wondering minute-by-excruciating-minute why it is taking so long for help to arrive.
“I feel like I reinvented a genre of filmmaking and awoken audiences into this very real experience,” says Poppe.
As a fan of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo’s crime books, we can’t resist asking Poppe what went wrong with The Snowman, last year’s celluloid version of the Harry Hole crime series, its acerbic detective depicted by Michael Fassbender.
“I know Jo very well so hopefully there will be more movies,” smiles Poppe, refusing to confirm whether he may take over the helm from Tomas Alfredson. “I don’t know yet. Maybe,” he teases.
Erik Poppe photo by Erik Buras/Studio B13