Erik Poppe’s U - July 22, recreates a horrifying event with stunning exactitude, but also raises questions
When a film deals with a horrific real world event, is recreating how it happened enough? Or should it provide context as well? | Examining Erik Poppe's Utøya 22.juli / U — July 22
Utøya 22.juli (U — July 22), directed by Erik Poppe, depicts a terrible chapter in Norway’s history. On the day the film is named after, a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik set off bombs in the government offices in Oslo, then travelled to Utøya island, the location of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth league summer camp, and opened indiscriminate fire. There, he killed 69 people and injured 200. Poppe wants to immerse us in these events. He recreates them with a you-are-there frisson, something familiar to us from films like United 93¸ which was about the events on the plane targeted at the White House on 9/11. (Indeed, the director of that nerve-shredding thriller, Paul Greengrass, is making his own movie about Breivik.)
Poppe’s film is part-homage, part-gimmick. Of the 90-minute running time, he uses the first 12 minutes to set up the characters. When we first see 19-year-old Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), she seems to be breaking the fourth wall, talking to us as she utters these words: “We are on Utøya island. It’s the safest place on earth.” She’s actually talking into her headset, reassuring her mother, who has heard about the bombings. Kaja’s Muslim friend, a boy named Issa, says, “I hope it wasn’t a Muslim group.” The kids talk about Afghanistan, al Qaeda — they are engaged, interested in more than just the latest movie or pop song. These are kids that may end up changing the world. That makes the ensuing tragedy hurt even more.
It begins with what sounds like fireworks. These are really gunshots, and the remaining 72 minutes of the film — the exact duration for which Breivik’s massacre unfolded, in the exact location (Utøya island), featuring the exact number of shots fired by Breivik — are filmed in a single, agonising take. It’s hard to argue against the effectiveness, the necessity, or the importance of the movie, especially in light of the recent Florida-school shooting. We are gripped by the awful sense of what it’s like when an unseen madman is targeting you and those around you. To stay in the woods surrounding the camp, or try to swim away, in 10-degree water? To save just your skin, or try saving others less strong, more numbed by the happenings? These are choices no one should have to face, not least children who have their whole lives ahead of them.
I was troubled by two aspects: One, the decision to tell the events largely through Kaja’s point of view. For most of the movie, the camera either follows her or sees what she sees — and this makes her a sort of “heroine,” not just in the sense that her deeds end up being heroic but also that she becomes the protagonist. This makes for a “cleaner” narrative, certainly, and you can see why Poppe opted for it — there is already so much chaos, so why risk narrative chaos as well, with multiple viewpoints? But this decision privileges Kaja’s experience over that of the others, who are no different. This may not be a big deal in a purely fictional enterprise, but with such painstaking care being taken to tell us “this is how it really was,” the focus on one student (Kaja) feels unfitting.
But the bigger issue is this: What use is it to merely reconstruct a horrifying event on screen? In one of the rare negative reviews of United 93, Keith Uhlich wrote in Slant: “Greengrass is good at portraying confusion, but he’s incapable of providing an artist’s clarity to an event that demands it. There’s no moral center to United 93; Greengrass and his employers trust that recreation, along with a heavily promoted, voluminously footnoted fidelity to ‘fact’ will carry the day.” In other words, what good is it to use your filmmaking prowess to simply show what happened without a glimpse at the why and the how?
In a superb piece on World Socialist Web Site, titled United 93: Everything but how and why it happened, Joanne Laurier zoomed in on the exact nature of the problem. “Greengrass places titles at the end of the film, commenting on various facets of the 9/11 events. Why could he not have similarly begun his film with titles conveying the fact, for example, that in 1979 the US commenced giving financial and military backing to the Islamic fundamentalists engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul? Or why not a title indicating that Osama bin Laden was essentially on the CIA payroll in the early 1980s, through Pakistani intelligence?”
Breivik’s attack may not have been a world-altering historical event on a similar scale, but the question is the same. Why not put the events in some kind of context? After all, Breivik did have his reasons, and these reasons did arise from world events. The cause is as important as the effect. Of course, a film needn’t always be what you want it to be — and it’s the director’s prerogative to show what he’s interested in. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. It’s just that with films like United 93 or Utøya 22.juli, we wonder whether it’s some kind of exploitation to eschew context and simply dramatise events that are guaranteed to do a number on the audience.
Then again, listen to what Ingrid Endredrud, who was 17 at the time of the attack, said in The Guardian: “This film is so important because it captures what rightwing extremism can lead to. This is hate in its purest form and as a society we have to stand together against it. 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.” She added that the film was a way of preserving an important part of Norway’s history. I guess that’s another way to look at it. After all, in a World War II movie, we don’t expect context. We allow history (what we know, what we’ve read) to do the job of contextualisation, and expect the film to just tell a story. Why should it be any different with Utøya 22.juli?
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South)
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