Erik Poppe brings the horrific events of July 2011 to life in ‘Utøya – 22 July’, creating an all too realistic dramatisation of the slaughter.
July 22 2011 is a date that will never be forgotten in Norway: the date of the biggest trauma to hit the Scandinavian nation since World War Two; the date on which Anders Breivik slaughtered 69 defenceless civilians on Utøya, most of whom were teenagers; the date on which the world was shown far-right terror is still a very real threat.
The film begins with protagonist Kaja (Andrea Betzsen) staring directly into the camera, and uttering: “You’ll never understand”, in what at first appears to be a fourth wall break.
And Kaja is correct, anyone who wasn’t there will never understand, but Poppe tries incredibly hard to get you close.
Kaja is a 19-year-old girl at a Workers Youth League summer camp and the film begins with her and her sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne) having an argument, which the audience know they are going to regret shortly.
Kaja then debates politics with Petter (Brede Fristad) and chats to dopey Magnus (Aleksander Holmen). The gunshots start soon after, and the rest of the film follows Kaja’s desperate search of her sister amongst the chaos.
BOLD DECISION: Utoya director Erik Poppe spoke at a HOME Q&A about shooting the film in a single take before the UK release on October 26
The word visceral is thrown about too much by film critic as every film displaying any semblance of emotion is instantly labelled visceral.
To describe this film as visceral however is the understatement of the century. Every emotion, every breath and every step are jabbing and poking on the heartstrings of the audience, leaving most in tears throughout the movie.
Poppe takes a bold artistic decision in the entire film being one 97-minute unbroken camera take.
The length exactly mirrors the duration of the attack, and despite being relatively short, feels horrendously long at the same time as you live in the torment of the teenagers.
“The time felt so essential that I wanted to see if I could bring it into the story as a character itself,” Poppe told a Q&A at HOME in Manchester after the screening.
The effect of the single take is completely harrowing. The camera ducks and dives throughout the Norwegian woods, only catching glimpses of action, fully immersing the audience in the terror of attack.
This, paired with the absence of a score or soundtrack, makes it terrifyingly realistic.
The film is entirely from the perspective of the targets of the attack, choosing not to give satisfaction to Breivik by giving him screen time, he’s only seen in one brief glimpse from a long distance.
The omission of the far right extremist is as much a political decision as an artistic one. Breivik’s name is not mentioned once by anyone participating in the Q&A.
From an artistic viewpoint however, it gives the film the aura of a horror, especially as the teens try and fathom who the shooter is throughout the film.
The absence of the shooter makes every gunshot terrifying, with the audience just as unaware of the shooter’s position as the protagonists.
Utøya – July 22 opens in the UK on October 26 and is being screened at HOME in Manchester.