Erik Poppe’s tough massacre drama is a warning to the world
22 July 2011. The small island of Utøya held the Norweigan Labour Party’s youth camp and, for 72 minutes, a right-wing terrorist. His attack was a symbolic one, a message to the government conveyed by gunning down 77 children, injuring 99 and shocking the world. This month, two films tell that story.
Netflix’s 22 July sees Paul Greengrass tread familiar territory after 9/11 drama United 93. It focusses on the terrorist, beautifying him with neat stubble and stylish haircut, and following him as he shoots masses of nameless children. Less than 15 minutes of the two-and-a-half hour drama is spent in the massacre itself, before reveling in swat team radio chatter, conversations in government buildings and the dangerous rhetoric of the terrorist.
If Greengrass’ film is an American take on the attack, Norweigan director Erik Poppe’s sensational Utøya: 22 July is the story of the victims. Working with documentary photographer Martin Otterbeck, the film shows the massacre in real time. There’s no cutaway, no black screen as a respite from the horror. The only soundtrack is the screams and cries of the victims, punctuated by the gunshots that silence them. It holds the feel of a found footage film, as we follow fictional Kaja across the island with a steadicam. Each gunshot is frightening, each death is heartbreaking and each second is horrifying.
Seven years later might feel like an odd time to re-tell this story, but Poppe puts us in no doubt of Utøya’s relevance today. As the film ends, we are plunged into silence and presented with these words: “Right-wing extremism is increasing in Europe and the Western World. The terrorist’s concept of who the enemy is lives on, and such views are on the rise.”
This innovative drama is a undoubtedly a tough watch. It’s a profound and painful reflection on the past and an urgent warning about the future. It gives voices to the victims, not spoken over by killer rhetoric. Those voices deserve to be heard and Utøya: 22 July deserves to be seen.
Words: Oliver Driver
Utøya: 22 July runs at the Showroom until 1 November.