Berlinale 2018: Norway's 'Utøya 22 July' Film is Harrowing, Horrifying
by Alex Billington
February 19, 2018
One of the darkest days in Norway's modern history is July 22nd, 2011. On this day, a lone-wolf, ring-wing extremist terrorist attacked government buildings in Oslo with bombs and then went to an island near the city and shot over 200 children and teens camping there, killing 68 of them. The film Utøya 22 July, also titled simply U: July 22, is a cinematic recreation of this day on the island and it's utterly harrowing. I sat through the film's first press screening in the morning at the Berlin Film Festival and it's so intense at times, I was literally sick to my stomach. It's an immersive, exhausting experience that follows one young woman in one 72-minute long-take shot as she scurries around the island, desperately trying to stay alive and find her sister. It stays focused entirely on her and puts viewers right there in the middle of it as it's happening.
The film opens with actual CCTV footage of the bombing in the city of Oslo. It then continues by taking us to the island of Utøya, where hundreds of kids from a youth league are camping. The camera focuses on a girl named Kaja, played by Andrea Berntzen, and stays focused on her the entire time. From this moment on, as a viewer, you're instantly tense. You know something bad is going to happen and it's only a matter of time until the shooting starts. The handheld camera follows Kaja as she frantically runs into the main building then into the trees nearby with a few others, making us feel the confusion and chaos. No one knows what's going on, but everyone is running and screaming. The shooting continues, and everyone remains petrified, terrified. The whole point of the film is to put viewers directly into this mass shooting event, without ever showing the shooter because they never see him - only hear gun shots. It's obscenely harrowing to watch.
There is already a debate about Utøya 22 July at the Berlin Film Festival. Some critics have condemned the film for being so vile and manipulative. But don't they get it? That's the point. It's manipulative only in the sense that it's designed to make you feel uncomfortable and sick to your stomach. Maybe they can't handle these emotions? Maybe they just want to separate themselves and their emotions from what's happening on screen? Part of what makes this film so intense is that we can't even really imagine what it would be like to actually be there. There are no words that can properly describe or explain it and how traumatizing it is, but there are feelings. Norwegian director Erik Poppe uses the power of cinema to make us feel when words alone are incapable of capturing the sheer terror of this kind of experience. I think it's necessary, perhaps even important, for viewers to go through this experience to learn just how horrifying and how scary it is.
Going in to see Utøya 22 July, the big question on my mind was: what is the point of telling this story in this way? Why make a film about what it was like to actually be there? Why traumatize audiences? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I hope there is a reason. My only gripe with the film is that it does not include any extra context or political subtext or parting thoughts that could help guide the conversation. Instead, we're just left to ponder after holding our breath for 90 minutes. So what are we supposed to learn from experiencing this tragedy from the perspective of a young woman who was there? The debate will rage on, and it's good to ask these questions, because there has to be a point. We have to learn something. Even if it's only that these events are so unbelievably terrifying we should be doing any/everything to prevent them.
Alex's Berlinale 2018 Rating: 9 out of 10
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