The ‘based on a true story’ film genre is obviously no rare one. These films are usually epic, star a protagonist hero and maybe even feature a love story arc. None of these are contained within Utøya: July 22’s 90 minutes. This film makes you consider that to add such things is an insult to the real-life events upon which this genre chooses to base itself. Alternatively, you realise that this is one of the only ‘based on a true story’ films you have seen that is the telling of an event that had no triumphant, hero-led happy ending.
The event in question is an unimaginably tragic one. In July 2011, a lone far-right extremist, armed to kill, travelled to the small island of Utøya where a Norwegian Labour Party youth summer camp was taking place. Approximately 600 teenagers were in attendance at the camp and 69 never made it out alive.
A challenge presents itself when taking on a task as monumental and as socially important as recreating the events of that day: how do you capture the true timeline of a modern-day massacre in a way that feels real? Director Erik Poppe’s solution is to shoot in a single take stretching the entire runtime. The effect is that you are spurred to appreciate that this is the only way the film could have been shot. As was elegantly put by lead actor Andrea Berntzen in the Q&A following the screening, the victims cannot pause and cut away from the action like actors or viewers of it can. Each terrible minute and each terrible minute’s events have to be lived out in real time.
Poppe describes how he wanted to give a sense of what 72 minutes (the exact amount of time the shooting lasted) actually feels like, and the single shot aids this. The film certainly does feel long in a way that one that had been cut and chopped and edited and musically-scored might not. And yet, you don’t miss these effects. Honestly, you don’t find yourself on the very edge of your seat like you might at the climax of an epic containing them either, even though the theme of Utøya is so infinitely more emotionally trying. But again, you don’t wish to. If you want these things, you do not want truth.
There are points of main character Kaja’s (played by Berntzen) journey that lead the shot to linger in one place for a significant amount of screen time. These instances include just Kaja or Kaja sitting with one other person, words only being exchanged infrequently. Somehow, however, you aren’t swept with a yearning for the scene to hurry up. There is something about the reality of the situation and the power of the on-screen turmoil that lets these lingering moments not live in fear of outstaying their welcome.
Thanks can also be given to Berntzen’s performance on this front. She is truly staggering in her ability to portray such a believable character in every breath she takes, every line she utters, and every single physically gruelling movement she makes, especially when you consider that she is present on camera every second.
There is only a single moment in the entire film in which you can feel a filmmaker’s artistic presence. In the opening minute, Kaja’s eyes meet the centre of camera lens as she says “you won’t understand”. Only after do you realise she is actually talking into her phone and that would be the last time she faces you straight-on again. Still, the message is clear. The unfolding events you are about to follow will always be out of reach of your comprehension.
The Q&A included the highlighting of a concerning issue that lingers in the wake of terrorist attacks, namely the media’s narrative of that infamous day being focused almost exclusively on the perpetrator. Inadvertently, the malevolent attacker comes to be fed with the attention they had craved all along. At the same time, the victims remain nameless, faceless and anonymous. Their struggle is shunned away from the light, a light that shines instead on questions such as where to put the memorial statue, really just because it is so hard to talk about the former. By turning the narrative on its head and giving the attacker this anonymity and lack of screen time, Utøya: July 22 puts the focus entirely back on the victims – where it needs to be right now.
Not to be confused with the recently-released Netflix drama 22 July, Utoya: July 22 will be showing at HOME from 26th October. This is an essential watch.