Horror movies could not accomplish the sickening effects of “22 July.” The film reenacts, with detached precision, a terrorist attack in Norway in 2011. A neo-Nazi, who will remain unnamed (so as to retain focus on the victims not the perpetrator) sets up an elaborate ploy to push his anti-Muslim, radical beliefs. He rigs a car bomb in Oslo, mainly as a distraction, then proceedes to drive to a summer camp for children to further his revenge against the “elites.”
“22 July” follows the steps leading up to the attack and its aftermath with a cold eye. Despite following a family with two boys on the island, Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen) and Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), the film refuses to give the characters a fictional or cinematic background. The lines are delivered with a casual tone and all the emotions are dulled to a realist approach. This strengthens the effects of the trauma and emphasizes the unexpectedness of the events. These children began the day with an exercise “If I Were Prime Minister” and, a few hours later, most were killed or injured violently.
As the neo-Nazi terrorist accuses the children of liberal, Marxist sins and claims he will rid Europe of Islam, it is difficult not to picture a fanatic Trumpian rally. Xenophobes like to point to terrorism as a reason to prevent people from immigrating to the United States. However, as data provided by the CATO Institute shows, the chances of dying at the hands of a green-card immigrant in a terrorist attack are one out of 723 million. The neo-Nazi responsible for murdering innocent people demanded a ban on immigration as a necessity for him to call off alleged planned attacks for the future. The disturbing irony of the moment — a white supremacist terrorist calling for all other races not to be allowed in Europe in order to restore the continent’s greatness — is the root of the powerful and timely message in “22 July.”
However, with any dramatization of a real-life event, the question of exploitation arises. Are the filmmakers taking advantage of other people’s trauma? Is this the best form to revive an event? Watching the young actors tremble and shake; watching young bodies fall lifelessly and quickly; watching a neo-Nazi try to justify his actions is subject matter that’s too difficult to consume. While dealing with challenging topics head-on opens discussion, accusations of indulging in pain-porn are completely justified. Why should audiences sit through two and a half hours of grueling trauma? Not to live vicariously through the thrill, but to stop and examine how present these problems still are seven years later.
“22 July” does not attempt to push the box office or serve as awards bait. Instead, the film seeks to inform and remind viewers of a haunting tragedy that gained momentum from behavior still encouraged in the present. Gun control, debates on immigration, white nationalism and every other hot-button issue had a contributing role in the tragedy on Jul. 22, 2011. None of those contentious topics have faded away, so neither can constructive and informative conversations too. “22 July” wants to remind us of what happens when we underestimate the power of hate.