Utøya – July 22 (2018)

Utøya – July 22 first published by RealCrime Magazine

On Friday, 22 July, 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a van bomb outside Government buildings in Oslo, killing eight, and then, dressed as a policeman, shot dead 69 people at a Labour Party Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya.

Text at the beginning of Erik Poppe’s Utøya – July 22 plainly states most of this history (with more detail in closing text), and real archive footage shows the Oslo bombing. On Utøya, though, the film’s representational mode shifts radically to one sinuous, continuous take that confines unfolding events to real time and to a (mostly) single perspective on the ground. “You’ll never understand,” says Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) as she enters the frame at the start, looking into the camera (and therefore right at us), “That’s why it’s important we’re here.” She is in fact speaking to her mother on a mobile phone about the Oslo bombing, but those words also serve as a direct address: a request for empathy from the viewer, and a justification for the film’s importance, even existence. 

Perhaps such justification is required. For we already know, in cold statistical terms, what will happen next, and seeing Kaja’s ordeal now packaged as intense handheld hide-and-seek horror, viewers might find themselves discomfited by the distinct whiff of exploitation and insensitivity hanging in the air. This is a problem for any filmmaker dealing with real, recent crime – yet there are degrees of exploitation. At one extreme is Vitaliy Versace’s Utoya Island (2012), a cheap, ugly cash-in made less than a year after the massacre, and an object lesson in how not to respect the dead or their surviving friends and family. In 2018 there have been three films dealing with the events at Utøya. Paul Greengrass’ 22 July traces Breivik’s outrages and subsequent trial, but assiduously banalises him, while offsetting his story with that of a recovering survivor. Carl Javér’s documentary Reconstructing Utøya allows four survivors to retrace their harrowing steps. Similarly Poppe’s film – much like Keith Maitland’s rotoscoped Tower (2016), about the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas in Austin – focuses on recovering both the experience and personhood of the incident’s victims, and reduces the perpetrator himself, whom it never even names, to a barely glimpsed shadow on the periphery. 

Kaja’s desperate dash across the island in search of her younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne) may come with inherent (and in this context, uneasy) thrills, but along the way we see a promising, responsible, decent young woman whose life is arbitrarily threatened by the most toxic brand of regressive masculinity. On this real yet allegorical island, the personal and the political clash, and a nation’s innocence is destroyed.

© Anton Bitel