Between the two recent films depicting the Utøya massacre, Reconstructing Utøya is the one that succeeds.
The multiple Utøya films are in danger of forming an excessively rich menu. Paul Greengrass’ film 22 July, based on Åsne Seierstad’s book One of Us, was launched with much bravado by Netflix close to the premiere of the Swedish-Norwegian documentary Reconstructing Utøya. Where the latter has an approach that offers healing and sincerity, Netflix follows the classic Hollywood conventions for an action film in 22 July. Interestingly, both films use the same story of two brothers as a focal point.
Where Carl Javér’s documentary narrates the terrorist attack minute by minute, the feature film makes use of a traditional American narrative arc, mixing in secondary characters (family members) and unabashed crosscutting to the terrorist. The structure is supposed to build tension and excitement but ends up compromising the realism as well as the intensity of the drama. The more understated and simplistic Reconstructing Utøya feels much more raw, bringing us close to the event, and using the younger brother’s story to invite us in.
Both films have an aim to oppose ideologies and attitudes that promote terrorism. While he was filming 22 July in Oslo, Greengrass explained why Norway’s encounter with terrorism became a topic of interest to him: According to him, the way in which the trauma was handled reflects a society that, despite facing atrocities like the massacre at Utøya, is still able to maintain hope.
«Torje tells us how he pulled his hair down over his forehead to make himself look younger, hoping the killer might spare him.»
Many non-Norwegian Netflix viewers have been positive to the streaming channel’s boldness in telling such a brutal story from real life. Personally, I object to the film’s use of narrative structure and techniques. The continuous crosscutting to the terrorist offers no new insight: All we see is the man sitting there with his ice-cold sneer, delivering cliché phrases. The attack itself also feels too easy. The films about the July 22nd attack that follow the actual timeline of events are better able to capture the unfathomable horror that took place in those 72 minutes – a horror that is still playing out in the lives of those who were affected. Diminishing the length of the terrorism attack is a diminishing of the events that took place.
In a cinematic depiction it only takes minor details to compromise the credibility of the story, and the poor English in 22 July did just this. When I muted the film it felt more real, but a whiff of American fast food still remained. Reconstructing Utøya, on the other hand, had me in tears – even good ones – despite being a difficult film to watch.