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Brilliant use of the tenets of cinéma vérité make for a disturbingly realistic experience
Utøya 22. juli is an aesthetically fascinating, pseudo-documentarian examination of the 2011 Utøya massacre, told from the perspective of one of the youths trapped on the island. Decidedly different from Paul Greengrass's recently released Netflix film, 22 July (2018), the makers of Utøya 22. juli have little interest in political contextualisation. Comparisons are, of course, inevitable, but what's interesting is that Greengrass isn't overly interested in the massacre itself, focusing instead on the repercussions and subsequent trial, attempting to explicate some of the far-right political motivations. In this sense, Utøya 22. juli and 22 July complement one another in such a way as to provide a reasonably inclusive overview of the motives, the act, and the punishment. Where Utøya 22. juli is especially laudable, however, is in its extraordinary and thematically justified aesthetic design, which elevates it from a fine film to a superb one.
Written by Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen, from a story treatment by Erik Poppe, who also directs, Utøya 22. juli is based exclusively on the testimony of survivors, but the characters are fictional, with the protagonist Kaja (an extraordinary Andrea Berntzen) a composite of several different people, experiencing on her own what they did collectively. Although dealing with a politically motivated incident Utøya 22. juli is a relatively apolitical film, in the sense of Gus Van Sant's overly-simplistic Elephant (2003) or Paul Greengrass's superb United 93 (2006). It simply has no interest in contextualising the event within a larger socio-political or socio-historical framework. It is instead a homage to the young people. In filtering the event through Kaja, Poppe is able to narrativise it. Of course, it could be argued using a fictional protagonist is distasteful and disrespectful. However, the film was made in consultation with numerous survivors of the massacre. In a BBC interview, Poppe stated, "there were ethical reasons for me to tell a fictionalised story. It would be hard for the survivors to watch the film if they thought these people were friends who had been killed." Speaking to The Guardian at the world première, one of the survivors, Ingrid Endredrud, said, "for me, the reason for helping with this film is because it tells the story which for so many of us has been impossible to tell. I've only been able to tell my experience with a great deal of distance and that's where film can offer another way of preserving an important part of Norway's history." Also speaking to The Guardian, Poppe states, "my overall aim by making the film was not to traumatise people, but to help the healing process." In this sense, rather than proving exploitative, the film is instead both necessary and cathartic. Indeed, private screenings were held around Norway to which survivors and families and friends of victims were invited, and Poppe sought their approval before releasing it.
As Endredrud alludes to above, however, the film is not entirely apolitical. The opening and closing legends both cite far-right thinking (the kind of people who don't understand the difference between nationalism and xenophobia, or patriotism and jingoism), and Poppe makes certain we know this is a condemnation of such an ideology. However, he wisely chooses not to ram this condemnation down our throats, nor even to foreground it. Perhaps the most salient political point in the film is that we are forced to see in specifics an incident which we tend to think of as an abstraction; it's one thing to say 69 people died. It's disassociated, depersonalised, a statistic. However, it's something else entirely to see some of those people die. In this sense, the film is an exceptionally effective condemnation of gun violence.
Related to this is an aesthetic point that bleeds into the political; the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, is seen only once, from a great distance, silhouetted against the horizon. As Poppe tells the BBC, he felt it was "morally questionable" to devote any time to "portraiting" Breivik. Recalling how Terrence Malick initially introduces the Japanese soldiers in The Thin Red Line (1998), Breivik is not afforded any kind of pathology, interiority, or psychological verisimilitude. Instead, he is disembodied. In fact, his name is never mentioned once, not even in the opening or closing legends. Instead, he exists more in the aural realm than the visual one, a more obvious presence in Gisle Tveito's sound design than Martin Otterbeck's cinematography. Primarily, this consists of the constant gunfire heard throughout the film.
Aesthetically, however, the film is exemplary beyond its sound design. For example, in reality, from the time of the first gun-shot to Breivik's arrest, 72 minutes passed. In the film, from the time we hear the first gunshot to the film cutting to black, exactly 72 minutes pass. Additionally, we hear the exact same number of gunshots as Breivik fired in real-life, 186. However, where it is most audacious is that the 72-minute sequence is made to look like a single-shot, with the edits hidden, à la Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). The film was shot in one take on five successive days, acting out the same scenario each day. Poppe and his editor, Einar Egeland, then edited extracts from each day together, hiding the cuts behind camera movement or darkness on screen. Coupled with this, everything is filmed hand-held, eschewing the pseudo-stability given by the use of a Steadicam. Together, the hand-held nature of the cinematography, the single-shot effect, and the real-time structure work to establish a pseudo-documentarian verisimilitude, as if the camera is literally capturing these events as they are really happening in a cinéma vérité manner. In this sense, the fabula is as unmediated as possible, without any impression of either an omnipresent artifice, or an omniscient authorial voice.
Instead, the film works to inculcate the viewer into the event. This creates a prominent experiential plane, as the audience is made to consider what it must have been like to be involved in this nightmare - we see and share the panic as the characters peer out from behind cover, race to get to safety, or collapse onto the ground. In this way, the film avoids being exciting in any conventional sense; what we are witnessing is instead deeply traumatic, and the experience for a viewer is an ordeal, almost an endurance test. Rarely has the artifice of a single-take been this thematically justified.
A final point on the film's aesthetic design concerns the opening few seconds of the 72-minute sequence, which begins with a superbly conceived bit of visual trickery that, like everything else in the film, is thematically justified. As the camera approaches Kaja from behind, she turns around and looks directly into the lens, saying "You'll never understand." This seems a challenge as much as an assertion, directed at the audience, in a breaking of the fourth wall. However, after a moment, she turns her head and we see she is wearing an earpiece. It then quickly becomes apparent that she's talking to her mother, and her comment was diegetic - when she looked into the camera, she wasn't addressing the audience, it was simply the direction in which she was looking. This simple but effective moment knocks the audience immediately off balance, alerting us to the artifice of the film in an almost Verfremdungseffekt, before then shifting 180 degrees away from that apparent moment of self-reflexivity and immersing us completely into the fabula.
Of course, the film is not perfect, and Poppe does misjudge a couple of elements. For example, the tragedy on display is, in and of itself, overwhelming, and for the most part, he remains detached. However, on occasion, he does feel the need to foreground sentimental aspects which don't work and are unnecessary. The most egregious example is towards the end of the film as Kaja and Magnus (Aleksander Holmen) are trying to hide. To take their mind off what's happening they talk about their future plans. However, when he finds out she's a singer, he urges her to sing for him, which she reluctantly does. It's a fairly mawkish scene (really, all its lacking is a "Cry now" prompt), it doesn't accomplish anything, and it comes across as deliberately scripted, a concession to the rules of cinematic drama, lapsing into the traditional generic signposting that the film has mostly avoided up to this point. Another issue is that because Kaja is a composite of several people, her experiences are used by the filmmakers to give the viewer something of an overview. However, for one person to encounter so many characters and have such varying experiences does strain credibility a tad.
However, these are minor criticisms, and overall, this is a superb film, as aesthetically inventive as it is emotionally devastating, as politically aware as it is historically important. It will be sure to prompt debate about whether such an event should be used to provide the source material for a film, especially this soon after the fact. Some will argue it's fundamentally exploitative and disrespectful, others will see it as a dignified memorial, a vital text for Norway, capturing the essence of the most traumatic event the country has experienced since World War II. The last three or four minutes are utterly devastating, and really drive home the senseless loss of life and innate randomness of what happened. However, Poppe's main goal is to show the audience the bravery of these people, to honour them. Evil, the film suggests, is banal. Compassion and valour are much more worthy of our attention.
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