Directed by: Erik Poppe | 93 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Andrea Berntzen, Aleksander Holmen, Brede Fristad, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, Sorosh Sadat, Ada Eide, Ingeborg Enes, Jenny Svennevig, Hang Tran
We can still imagine heaven on earth. But hell? Do we really understand how the Jews of Auschwitz felt on their way to the gas chamber? How it was on September 11, 2001 on board United 93? Can we empathize even a little with the trauma that occupies part of the world’s population day and night?
Enter ‘Utøya 22.July’. In this intense drama by Erik Poppe, we go back to July 22, 2011, the day Norway was startled by two acts of terrorism. First, a bomb exploded near Prime Minister Stoltenberg’s office. Then the right-wing extremist perpetrator traveled to the island of Utøya, where the youth section of the Workers’ Party held its summer camp. The perpetrator had dressed up as a police officer, with the intention of luring the children as a perverted Pied Piper of Hamelin. Then the shooting started. It took 72 minutes. 69 children died.
In ‘Utøya 22. July’ we experience these hellish 72 minutes through the eyes of the fictional character Kaja. Shortly before the shooting, she argued with her younger sister Emilie, after which Kaja goes her own way. Despite all the fear for the shooter, she is now looking for Emilie and we experience up close what it must have been like on the island. With Kaja as a guide, we see the running young, the dying, the anxiously crawling children, the swimmers, the panic, the chaos.
The honest and cinematic ‘Utøya 22. Juli’ comes to us in a documentary style as we know it from ‘United 93’ or ‘Son of Saul’. Troubled handheld images, no music, no dramatic interventions, no clear images of the perpetrator. That the story itself is a composition is inevitable. Following the fictional Kaja (great role by Andrea Berntzen) we get a fairly complete picture of what happened next.
Although it is impossible to really feel what the victims felt from the cinema seat, watching ‘Utøya 22. July’ is far from fun. Certainly in the beginning we are shocked to burst from every shot and we come to rest when the shooting stops for a while. Our knowledge of the event gives us an edge over the victims, because we know that there is only one shooter, while the children think there are multiple shooters all the time.
The question remains why a film like ‘Utøya 22. July’ had to be made so shortly after the attack. Maybe to stay alert. Perhaps to gain more empathy with the many traumatized people in the world. Maybe to put our daily troubles into perspective. But perhaps also because we still know the name of the perpetrator while the names of the children slowly fade away. Of course we never get to know them completely in ‘Utøya 22. July’. Yet for 72 minutes we are with those poor boys and girls who had to face death straight in the eye at far too young an age. Then who are we to look away?