John Appel knew he wanted to make a film about chance; All he had to do was wait for the right sequence of events. So when Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik went on his murderous rampage on July 22, 2011, the Dutch director reached for his camera.
“I wanted to make a film about how people deal with fate. It had to be based on a tragic event,” Appel, 55, said during an interview at the Olympion Theater after a screening of “Wrong Time Wrong Place,” part of Thessaloniki’s Documentary Festival which wraps up this weekend.
“I didn’t want to concentrate on who committed the crimes – only on the victims. This is a story about why people found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said of the film that opened the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November.
After setting off a car bomb outside government headquarters in Oslo, the 33-year-old Breivik went on a shooting spree on Utoya island, where more than 500 people had gathered for the Labor Party’s annual summer camp. Eight people died in the bombing and 69 were killed on the island. More than 240 were injured. Breivik claimed the killings were “cruel and necessary” to protect his country from being overrun by Muslims.
The documentary follows five people who either narrowly survived the massacre or had a close friend or relative killed in it. Harald, a Norwegian civil servant, had just arrived at the office that morning when the bomb went off, killing several of his colleagues and leaving him partially blind. Ritah, a pregnant woman from Uganda, only decided to go to the summer camp at the very last minute. She escaped by hiding inside a toilet with another two people. One of these was Hakon, who had noticed Breivik on the ferry to the island. Visiting from Georgia, Natia managed to escape, but her friend Tamta was the last person Breivik shot before being arrested by the police. The heartbreaking account of her parents is central to the film.
Convincing his characters to take part in the documentary, especially so soon after the tragic events, was not easy. “Some people did not trust me,” said Appel, adding that people were naturally put off by the sensation-hungry media. With others, he was able to convince them that his motives were different.
“I had to persuade them that I did not wish to exploit the drama. It was not my intention to investigate why the killer acted the way he did. I was not interested in his story, but in the story of the victims that were able to survive,” he said.
Quite fittingly, chance also played a big part in making the film. Appel started filming before he had found any characters or a story. “I was looking for characters and then, during filming really, by chance I met the individuals that appear in the film,” he said.
“I totally could not find the lady from Uganda [Ritah]. I wanted to tell the story of the people who hid inside the toilet but I could only find two of them. I was looking for Ritah in Uganda but I could not find her, and then, thanks to a coincidental contact, I found out she was living in the Netherlands, where she had applied for political asylum,” he said.
“I visited her, the next day I filmed, and the day after that she gave birth to the baby. I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Watching the film, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the way cultural and religious differences affect the way people deal with tragedy. The mother of Tamta, who can be seen praying in an apartment filled with religious icons and family pictures, appears to believe that the fate of her daughter, her only daughter, was sealed in old religious texts. “It was a relief for her. It was a relief to discover the book that had predicted what happened – that is being born on Christmas Day – meant something special and this was in the hand of the gods and she had to die anyway,” said Appel, who is not religious himself.
He says the cold Nordic character is perhaps more suitable to deal with such circumstances. “Look at how they dealt with the court case and Breivik himself. They were extremely civilized. If it had taken place in Greece, maybe people would try to kill him. Norwegians are different,” he said. Judges declared Breivik sane and sentenced him to at least 21 years in prison.
Appel, who has directed more than 30 documentaries for cinema and television, says his next project will be completely coincidental – including the starting point of the film. “If you make a coincidental film, you meet one person that leads you to the next person, and that leads you to another person, and this whole thing will reveal everything life is about,” he said.
Does he think that the realization of this unbearable lightness of being, as it were, should make us treat life a bit less seriously? “Yes, I think so. One of the views I want to express in this film is that life is not controllable. You can try to live as safely as you can, but you never know what is going to happen. You may get sick or get involved in a serious accident,” he said.
“So you should be a little more open to the unexpected and not try to control everything in life. It’s really not worth it.”