Tuesday 23 October 2018

Utøya July 22 aka Utøya 22 Juli (Norway 2018: Dir Erik Poppe)

Arguably the controversy over the release of Erik Poppe's Utøya July 22 has been compounded by UK director Paul Greengrass's 22 July (currently streaming on Netflix). Both films reconstruct the 2011 atrocity on the Norwegian island of Utøya, where 77 young people, camping as part of an event organised by the Labour Party's Workers Wing (the AUF), were gunned down by lone extremist right-winger Anders Breivik.

The arguments as to whether a filmmaker should attempt such a film are complex. Commercial movies are, by their very nature, just that; commercial - they are there to make money, irrespective of any higher purpose espoused by the director. On the other hand, film is peerless as an artform in its ability to convey mood, feeling, a sense of time and place, and also to provide different contexts in storytelling.

Poppe's version of the events was planned in close dialogue with several survivors of the atrocity, and sticks closely to the facts - it was even filmed near to where the murders took place, and on film the events have the same time duration as the actual incident - 72 minutes. Poppe's key decision was not to foreground Breivik, but to concentrate on the victims, the movie becoming an extended commemoration of their bravery. The director was concerned that in many written accounts of the events on Utøya too much emphasis had been placed on Breivik's motivations, mainly due to their seeming lucidity, reducing the human cost to an enumeration of lives lost. And it is this aim which is the key to Utøya July 22's success as a piece of film making.

The film opens, and maintains its focus throughout, on 18 year old Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), who like all of the characters in the movie, is fictitious. Kaja comes to represent the body of students in her determination and resilience (her age is not accidental - more of the Utøya victims were 18 than any other age) and we first meet her talking directly to the camera. "You don't understand," she says. Is Kaja talking to the audience? No, she's just hands free on her phone. When she joins the rest of the group, the talk is all about the recently detonated bomb in Oslo (set off by Breivik) - many of the young people are phoning relatives on the mainland - when they can get a signal - and there's a sense of shock among the group; of course we are fully aware of what's going to happen next.

That knowledge gives an off camera scream added frisson as the audience waits for the inevitable violence. But it's just Kaja's younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osborne) messing about with some other kids. Back in their tent Kaja berates Emilie for her lack of sensitivity, clowning around when a bomb has gone off in the Capital. Emilie sulks and refuses to leave the tent while Kaja joins the others (and it is this separation that drives the story), who are philosophising about the political and social impact of the bombing. One student of colour worries that if responsibility is claimed by a Muslim group he will be victimised - but there's a general feeling that terrorism doesn't happen in Norway.

The build up of tension prior to the event becomes almost unbearable, and this could lead to an accusation that Poppe is playing with the tropes of the thriller here, particularly as we know that while the students are gently bickering among themselves Breivik is travelling to Utøya to begin his murderous rampage.

It's an interesting dilemma. How to make a sensitive film about actual events while at the same time deploying accepted genre devices? As the shooting starts Poppe continues to utilise them: when Kaja returns to the tent to find Emilie, she calls her sister's mobile only to discover that it has been left in the tent. And while Breivik is never fully seen for reasons earlier mentioned, his shadowy figure, glimpsed outside tents or at a distance as a dark, menacing form, brings to mind the killers of slasher movies. Even the choice to film Utøya July 22 with a single handheld camera in one take, with the sounds of screaming in the woods out of shot, brings to mind the found footage genre.

Ultimately any accusations of exploitation are counterbalanced by the all too human tragedy unfolding, and the sensitive way it's depicted. Initially when the shooting starts many of the students gather together but they are soon forced into isolation; and what Utøya July 22 heartbreakingly shows is that children have little survival instinct - they simply shut down. Even Kaja - whose spirited attempts to avoid Breivik and locate her sister provides a ray of hope for survival - tells other kids, trying to hide themselves in the cracks of a steep cliff face, that she's going to find someone who will help. Poppe keeps anything explicit out of sight - there is thankfully no lingering on the aftermath of the shootings - but one very difficult scene, where Kaja comforts a dying child by asking her what she wants to be when she grows up, and who responds with a plea for 'mummy' is almost unbearable; the children who have no future except to face their own mortality is the most frightening thing in a film which remains incredibly powerful long after the credits have rolled.

Utøya July 22 is released theatrically from 26 October 2018.

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