Last time out we looked back at Shoplifters. This week for we go to Norway and to the controversial film, Utøya: 22 July that asks the moral question, should a film show the events of a massacre?
There will be a very select few films more difficult or harrowing to watch than Utøya: 22 July and I say that as a positive. Based on the terrorist attacks in Norway on July 22nd 2011, the film focuses on the massacre of 69 Norwegian Labour Party’s Youth League member on the small island of Utoya.
Utøya: 22 July was released at the same time Paul Greengrass’ (who of course made United 93 only 5 years after those events) version 22 July which focused more on Breivik and the after-effects of the massacre was released on Netflix and a weird opportunity arose to compare and contrast two films about the same events came to audiences.
Where Utøya: 22 July focusses on the entire massacre and was shot as if it is one continuous take (filmed over 5 days much like 1917) with the attack running at the same length of the attack at 72 minutes. Greengrass went the route of trying to figure out the reasoning behind the attacks and compares that with the after-effects of one of the survivors Viljar Hansson. Whereas with this war reporter documentary style from Erik Poppe who never allows us to see Breivik apart from his silhouette. We do not hear his voice we do not even hear his name. Although he causes all of this death and despair, this story isn’t about him, this is about the strength and terror that the survivors and the victims experienced as they tried to escape him.
Poppe made a choice with the film that everything would be shot in a hyper-realistic style. He also made an important choice to never allow the audience to see events through the eyes of the characters. There is no POV here, we are constantly tucked just behind our lead, a guide through this tragedy. This technique is gripping and utterly frightening, on occasion we see teenagers peak their heads around rocks and trees hoping they won’t get hit. With our vision obstructed, all we can do is hope. You truly do not know what is going to happen next, will Kaja find her sister before it is too late? We encounter her friends throughout and as some fall victim and some go off in a different direction from Kaja and it is heart-breaking.
By focussing only on the victims, we as the viewer do not get the chance to sympathise or feel any emotion to the killer and by doing this two things occur. We are trapped in the horror of not knowing what is occurring throughout the rest of the small island due to being with Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) for the entire runtime. We also hear the dull sounds of gunfire and screams from all around the island and unless Kaja makes it to that part of the island we do not know the fate of the hundreds of other teenagers on Utoya. Secondly, it is apparent that although the names have been changed from some of the characters, for example, Kaja is not a real person but an amalgamation of multiple people. The filmmakers have tried to adhere to the utmost respect to the victims by not dramatising the events to an accurate point where survivors would be able to
It is frantic and each step Kaja takes to help and find other survivors is felt. Each death is felt, your heart breaks for everyone and that is very much the point. This was a senseless act and it needs to be shown as much. I do not think audiences needed to see the legal system of Norway, I think they needed to show a form of the horror that happened on the island. If only to take the power away from Breivik and back into the hands of his victims. Much will be said about the real events and how harrowing and close to real-life they appear
Throughout Utøya: 22 July however and in fact throughout the marketing of the film, not once is the perpetrator’s image, voice or name used, assisting to symbolise how much respect the filmmakers have for the victims. This could be because everyone involved is Norwegian so a more delicate approach to how the killer is represented has been utilised.
This respect for the event and the victims remains throughout the film due to the fact that the filmmakers use the actual testimonies from the victims. Although, it should be noted that some of the testimonies have been meshed together to form this film, so although the vast majority of scenes and events happen in the film, they may not have at that time. But for the most part, what we see is what was occurring, but with Kaja being our eyes into the world that they encountered that day.
Poppe has stated that he wanted to bring the attention back to the victims of the attack and away from the murderer. This can only be commended as he has already had enough articles and pieces written about him since the attack. By focussing on the victims, they are able to take hold of the story and not allow it to be led by those who carried it out. In fact, one of the survivors stated so in an interview saying that the film brought back the memories of the event and that the impact should affect audiences.
A lot will be made about the ethics of highlighting this event again, especially only 8 years after and so close to the timing of the event. Is Utøya: July 22 difficult to watch? Almost certainly, but it is a film that demands to be seen and one that now almost nine years later it still makes you angry, angry that it happened to these innocent teenagers and their families. They deserved better.