Directed by: Erik Poppe
Starring: Andrea Berntzen, Aleksander Holmen, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne
Teenager Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) struggles to survive as she searches for her younger sister during the July 2011 terrorist mass murder at a political summer camp on the Norwegian island of Utøya.
On 22 July 2011, a home-grown right-wing extremist planted a bomb in Oslo’s government quarter, then travelled north to the island of Utøya, home of the Norwegian Labour Party’s Youth League summer camp, and opened fire on the hundreds of young people there. It’s an event that shocked the world and is an event that’s now embedded in the psyche of Norway and its people.
Perhaps it’s too soon to release dramatised versions of the events that happened on the island. But with Utøya: July 22 director Erik Poppe has made a film that’s as terrifying as it is respectful. It’s a heartfelt and immersive viewing experience, but it never sensationalises the situation these young people are in.
After opening with real footage of the explosion in Oslo, the film moves to Utøya where Kaja is on the phone to her mother, and she and her fellow campmates are just hearing about the explosion. When the gunfire starts on the island, there’s confusion and panic. Miscommunication spreads like wildfire as Kaja and her friends run for cover from a threat they cannot see. Their fear is palatable as the gunfire appears to be coming from everywhere, causing the young people to think there’s more than one person out to cause them harm.
Shot in one take, Utøya: July 22 follows Kaja as she searches for her younger sister. Kaja is a fictional character (as are all the characters named) but her journey around the island and the things she sees are based on witness accounts. Her search for her sister shows both the scope of what was happening, and the sense of there being no escape or refuge from what was happening.
Having the narrative never giving the terrorist a name or a face, instead being a figure barely glimpsed in the distance a few times, means that his story and goals are not important. Instead, it’s the young people on the island who matter, who are the ones worth focussing on.
Utøya: July 22 is harrowing but affecting. For better or worse it puts the viewer in the place of the victims and survivors, never easing up on the tension, but never being gratuitous with the violence.