Thoughts on Utøya: July 22 (Utøya 22. juli 2018)

Utøya: July 22 (Utøya 22. juli 2018) is a stunning technical and moral achievement. Directed by Erik Poppe and written by Anna Bache-Wiig and Rajendram Eliassen based on survivor accounts, the Norwegian film depicts the 72-minute-long summer camp mass shooting on the small island of Utøya on 22 July 2011—as a one-shot in real time. Norway’s only mass shooting in modern times is a raw point of trauma, and the shoot had psychotherapists on hand for crew and (especially) cast. David Ehrlich has written a delicate and powerful review; I want to dig a little deeper into the moral-aesthetic aspect.

The film follows Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) from just before the shooting starts, and basically doesn’t let her out of sight. (Everyone is a composite character.) Noticeably different from 22 July (2018), Paul Greengrass’s film on the same subject, is that here the shooter is rarely seen, and then only in silhouette from afar. In fact, Kaja is almost never directly in the line of fire. Thus, the most striking thing about the film is its long stretches of boredom and banality, the latter especially in the tactical debates with Petter (Brede Fristad) and heart-to-hearts with Magnus (Aleksander Holmen).

At first it struck me as absurd to critique the aesthetic pleasures of a film like this, and indeed this is what many feared would happen with a fictionalized account, however truthful it tried to remain. But given the fact that it’s done in real time (even though Berntzen’s running is purposely slow enough to let cinematographer Martin Otterbeck to catch up), the film is saying that the boredom and banality are a necessary part of the harrowing experience, perhaps even the defining aspect in their tension with the fear caused by the constant sound of gunfire and screaming. After all, when hiding from a shooter for an indefinite length of time, what else are you going to do to mentally weather the situation than try to hold a conversation with the person next to you?

In this sense, the film is the best demonstration of the power of cinema to put the viewer in someone else’s shoes and generate empathy for others. The camera is dynamic, subjective, and participatory, and post-production special effects are used only to heighten the realism in otherwise impossible ways, like ever so slowly draining color from the face and lips of a dying girl (Solveig Koløen Birkeland). This is no action flick.

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