On paper, turning the terrorist attack that killed 77 people on the Norwegian island of Utøya on July 22nd, 2011 into a feature film seems like a very risky idea.
How do you respectfully honour those members of the Labour Youth League who were brutally murdered in order to satisfy a twisted political agenda? These questions are never quite resolved in the exceptionally well-made Utøya 22 July, which nevertheless functions as a true slice of pure cinema.
Apart from some brief, and rather unnecessary, documentary footage showing the first attack, the entire film is shot in one hand-held take. Tracking shots as long as these can call attention to themselves, and at times are only there so the camera crew can show off, but here the technique is absolutely integral to the movie.
The attack itself only lasted 72 minutes, therefore making the movie work almost in real time. The shaky camera, which often loses focus and pans awkwardly, gives the feeling of a war report, and only allows us to know as much as the characters do. It immerses one into the movie itself, ramping up the tension and allowing its empathetic heart to sink in.
Our main protagonist is Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), an idealist who wants to be a politician one day. Having just heard the news about a bomb going off in Oslo, she gets off the phone with her mother, telling her not to worry.
After all, she is on an island, so nothing bad could happen to her. She argues with her sister over going swimming when people are upset, and then discusses terrorism with her friends. This brief semi-relaxed feel is then punctured by the sounds of gunshots. The rest of the film sees her and her friends run around the tiny island which has quickly turned into an horrendous death trap.
Utøya 22 July is a brave movie that will no doubt be described by some as emotionally manipulative. That is a fair criticism as the deaths of these teenagers has been used to create what is ostensibly an ‘entertainment’. While these thorny political questions will be discussed in detail in later months, the film still remains a deeply affecting piece upon first viewing.
Like Paul Greengrass’ United 93, it takes a real life event and honours those involved without feeling trite or corny. No doubt it will resonate most with audiences from the USA— constantly seeing their schools devastated by pointless and easily preventable mass shootings. Perhaps the depiction of such deadly and horrific violence like this is necessary, as it un-desensitises people to such events.
Most importantly, the focus is on the victims and not on the perpetrator, Anders Breivik, who is referred to only as a “far right terrorist” in the fact cards after the film ends. News stations spend an inordinate time after massacres such as these focusing on the murderer — asking questions such as why did he carry out these attacks, did he have a long history of mental illness — and not focusing on those people whose lives were senselessly cut down.
With post-9/11 cinema enjoying a long history of depicting the machinations of Islamic terrorists, this movie reminds audiences that the far-right threat can be just as lethal.
Ultimately, it is a difficult film to watch, an incendiary firebomb that is sure to provoke discussion in the months to come. The most important thing about it, however, is that it will make people talk about things such as radicalisation, access to firearms, security and the future of our youth. In a world so divided along strident political lines, a film like this is not only welcome — it feels necessary. This will be the think piece movie of the year.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Redmond Bacon is a professional film writer and amateur musician from London. Currently based in Berlin (Brexit), most of his waking hours are spent around either watching, discussing, or thinking about movies. Sometimes he reads a book.