Utøya – 22 July: Is filming Anders Breivik's massacre exploitative?
Two new films dramatise the 2011 killings in Norway
You’ll never understand.” That’s the opening line in Utøya – July 22, director Erik Poppe’s new film recreating the massacre of teenagers at a Norwegian island summer camp by far-right gunman Anders Breivik. It’s spoken straight to camera by Kaja, the film’s 18-year-old protagonist: ostensibly, she is talking on the phone to her mum, in an idle conversation before the terror begins. But it’s also, very obviously, an acknowledgement of the challenge Poppe has set himself: to try and make his audience experience, as intimately as possible, a world-wrenching event of incomprehensible horror.
In fact, by grim fortune, Utøya – July 22 is one of two films released this month about the killings on that summer afternoon in 2011, when Breivik arrived on the island, shortly after setting off a bomb beside Oslo’s government buildings, and opened fire, killing 69 people and seriously injuring another 110 over the course of 72 minutes. He had targeted the camp run by a left-wing youth group as part of his professed war on the country’s multiculturalism.
Norwegian director Poppe’s homegrown production focuses solely, in real time, on the massacre itself, taking us through it from Kaya’s perspective in one excruciating, shaky-cam take. Meanwhile its rival (if that is the word), simply entitled July 22 and launching on Netflix this week, is a more substantial look at the massacre and its aftermath by director Paul Greengrass, the Bourne films director alternatively known as a master of the tragic docudrama, from 2002’s Bloody Sunday to his 2006 work about one of the 9/11 plane hijackings, United 93.
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With United 93, five years marked the gap between catastrophe and its cinematic representation; in the case of the Breivik films, it’s seven. Yet the same question has been asked again: is it, simply, too soon? On top of that, there is nothing quite so viscerally upsetting as the mass shooting of children, and no subject for a film is likely to face more moral scrutiny. When Utøya – July 22 premiered at the Berlin film festival in February, it received a lot of positive notices, but there were also those who deemed it crass and exploitative.
Both Poppe and Greengrass seem aware of the ethical pitfalls, implicitly building their justifications into their versions of events. Poppe’s film omits Breivik almost entirely, only showing him in brief long shot. This, the director makes clear, is a film firmly about the victims and what they had to endure (the individual characters are fictionalised, though their experiences are based on survivors’ testimonies).
By contrast, Greengrass places Breivik front and centre (he’s played with a blank, vulpine chill by Anders Danielsen Lie) but the film only spends the first 30 minutes on the massacre itself. For the subsequent two hours, it switches between the arduous rehabilitation of one of the real-life survivors, Viljar Hanssen, a 17-year-old from the Arctic island of Svalbard, and Breivik’s trial, in which the battle of ideas between his toxic ideology and his victims’ vision of a tolerant, multicultural Norway plays out. This, Greengrass makes clear, is less about tragedy, than recovery.
Nevertheless, there’s no getting around the depressing fact that the massacre itself is the most cinematic aspect of the story. It’s a deeply eerie experience watching the films’ recreations of events on Utøya in quick succession, as I did a couple of weeks ago, and finding yourself engaging in a compare and contrast. Bearing witness to the shootings on screen, Greengrass’s film is the more violent take, though Poppe’s, with its tight focus on one teenager, is the more visceral. Meanwhile, in the build-up to the shootings, Poppe does better at characterising his victims, making them more authentically, discordantly adolescent, where Greengrass presents a harmonious youth utopia.
But in both, a queasiness comes from the way they convert real-life trauma into pulse-racing suspense. Perhaps that’s compounded by the fact the massacre felt like it was plucked straight from a horror film in the first place: the teenage summer camp is, after all, one of the genre’s most targeted locales. Watching Utøya – July 22’s long-haired heroine Kaja scrabble around the forest amid her fallen peers, another jarring, more mainstream, reference came to mind: the young-adult fantasy of The Hunger Games.
Is Poppe’s film, in particular, by focusing solely on the massacre and shooting it in such an experiential manner, exploitative? Maybe. Or maybe it’s us, the audience, that are the problem, and our whole dubious appetite for bloodshed on screen. That is, we can only understand violence through the prism of the films we watch for fictional thrills: the difference here is that the bloodshed brings no catharsis.
Utøya – July 22, is a compelling piece of filmmaking for its duration, but in the end you wonder what purpose it serves. Poppe has said that he wants to make sure the atrocities are not forgotten, and I don’t doubt his intentions, but is suffering in itself a worthwhile subject?
Greengrass’s film, in focusing on the ideology that caused the shootings, is actually the greater act of remembrance for the victims. It’s more Hollywood undoubtedly, and, inevitably perhaps, weighed down by reverence. But in choosing to foreground Breivik, and to stare his evil in the face, it actually makes the bolder choice.
There will be those who disagree. Just as the Norwegian justice system did, Greengrass once again allows Breivik to express his neo-Nazi views on screen in the courtroom scenes. To which you might say that the director is exactly playing into his hands, giving him yet more of the airtime he craved.
Yet the inclusion of his hate-preaching is justified by the film’s most understatedly chilling moment: when Breivik’s lawyer Geir Lipestad visits his client’s mother. She is ashamed of her son and refuses to testify on his behalf. But nevertheless, as Lipestad is leaving, she casually endorses him. “He’s kind of right though, isn’t he?” she says to the nonplussed attorney. “The way the country’s going... it’s not like it used to be.” To cast Breivik as an invisible bogeyman, as Poppe’s Utøya – July 22 does, is to deny that he is a product of his time and place: the unacceptable consequence of the accepted xenophobia permeating through the heart of Western society.
After all, for all that Greengrass’s film celebrates the noble defiance of liberalism in the face of Breivik’s hate, take a look at Norway today and the picture is bleak. The last few years have seen the rise of the populist right-wing Progress Party. Now in coalition government, the party was founded on anti-immigrant, anti-Islam sentiment, and Breivik was actively involved in it for seven years until 2006. Meanwhile, across Europe, populist and far-right movements continue to gain momentum. Too soon? One of these films, at least, can't come soon enough.
‘Utøya – July 22’ receives its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Friday 12 October and is released in cinemas on Friday 26 October. ‘July 22’ is on Netflix from 10 October