“22 July”: A drama where a documentary should have been

Educating the world about the events of 22 July 2011 is essential, but respecting both the victims and the Norwegian people is also crucial. Netflix’s new film, “22 July,” tests the balance between sharing a story and respecting the people of Norway. 

Text: Geoff Sloan
Illustration: Marisa Chantharayukhonthorn

The use of film to share stories isn’t uncommon. Filmmakers have a plethora of tools at their disposal and, consequentially, we see different finished products on the silver screen. Think of the fast paced atmosphere in “The Wolf of Wall Street, ” the idolization of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the sheer power of emotion in “13th,” and many other films: these are all based on true events, but vary in how far they stray away from non-fiction, documentary style to dramatization. 

This seems obvious, but knowing where to draw the line can pose an issue. The filmmaking methods used to make “22 July” were not the most appropriate and pose an issue for the victims and Norwegian people. 

“22 July” utilizes methods including: a reenactment of real-life events, a very real depiction of the atrocities, an explicit explanation of the perpetrator’s agenda throughout the film, and Norwegian actors speaking English. In an effort to make the film more accessible to a larger audience, are these justified means in order to reach the well-intentioned end? 

Reenacted films, rather than documentary-style films, automatically put us on this spectrum. By choosing to dramatize the events of 22 July 2011 rather than make a simple documentary, certain choices had to be made. Using actors rather than those who really experienced the events and taking artistic liberties to imagine certain actions which did not actually occur are things that need to be taken more seriously when telling this story. 

A fun-loving flick loosely based on fact like “Intouchables” and the gut-wrenching drama “12 Years a Slave” show us the spectrum that “22 July” is also on. The spectrum goes from explicit observation of fact in a classic documentary style, to varying levels of bending the truth for a dramatization based on true events. The chummy bromance in “Intouchables” allows its filmmakers to take artistic liberties for the sake of the film’s cohesion, and, most importantly, to keep the audience entertained. “12 Years a Slave” also takes artistic liberties simply because of the room for improvisation that a film based on an 1853 slave memoir creates. Both films have some level of inaccuracy simply because they are dramatizations of real events. “22 July” does some of the same but keeps to the real events quite closely. Despite this, is a film about the events of 22 July 2011 too serious or too recent to be dramatized? Focusing a majority of the film on the attacks and Anders Breivik’s ideology makes it seem as if this is the case. 

Choosing to focus so much on the attacks and Breivik’s plan poses a few issues. The filmmakers depicted the acts themselves for approximately 11 minutes of the film’s total run time. It is apparent that those who choose to watch the film already know the basic facts of what occurred that day. The necessity to show this part of the story so excessively is questionable. This is a gruesome depiction that does not respect the victims. 

In addition to the attacks’ depiction, the agenda of Breivik is very clearly stated throughout the majority of the film. It’s shown how he was aware and not coerced into his actions and pleaded guilty without taking a lighter sentence due to insanity. Most notably, the film shows how Breivik carried out the acts in an effort to share his intentions of creating a homogenous Norway. In addition to portraying the attacks,, the majority of the film focuses solely on Breivik and one of the victims. By doing so, it is evident that “22 July” creates a certain publicity for Breivik’s twisted ideology– the expressed goal he set out to achieve by committing the attacks. 

It is crucial to share the story of what occurred but also important to do so without aiding Breivik to share his backward message with the world. 

Aside from the film’s content, there is some concern over a tool used to open “22 July” up to a wider audience. The use of English rather than Norwegian obviously makes it more accessible to international audiences. But is it awkward having Norwegian actors play roles about a massive event in Norway’s history, acted out on Norwegian soil, in English? One could make the argument that having English dialogue makes it even more accessible because there would be less viewers if English subtitles are needed. But, as mentioned before, those who choose to watch this film are likely to already know the basics of what occurred that day. Is it worth uprooting the language of such a recent event in order to make a more successful flick? Again, the use of a documentary style might be more conducive for using English, but for both a dramatization and documentary the use of Norwegian would be preferable. 

It is important to also note that, as mentioned before, “22 July” does a good job of staying mostly close to the facts of what occurred during the day of 22 July 2011 and what transpired afterward. The film’s production and critical response are strong, and the story is being shared with a larger audience who otherwise might not have known about the attacks on Norway. 

Additionally, as I am a non-Norwegian who is living in Norway, it’s important to realize these are opinions from the outside– from a passionate observer who has been coming to Norway his entire life and considers its people very special. With that said, as with any film review, one must acknowledge that there are a myriad of different views and opinions of any given film. This specific review takes into account the genre or filmmaking and the place in which I have been observing “22 July” from outside Norwegian culture. Taking all this into consideration, one thing I believe we can all agree on is that people around the world need to be educated about 22 July 2011, despite differing views of how it should be done. 

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