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.
In its title, Reconstructing Utøya reflects the process of making the film. Four survivors are assisted by twelve other young people to recreate scenes from the massacre. The process takes place over a couple of weeks in an otherwise empty film studio in the north of Norway. It is a method that has been chosen not only to approach the Utøya story from a different angle, but also in an attempt to contribute to the survivors’ healing process.
One of the four Utøya survivors we meet in the film, Rakel, verbalises her hopes for the two weeks of filming. «You go to the gym to build muscles. I consider this a kind of psychological strength exercise.» In its opening, the film asks how we can talk about the terrorist attacks. But the film does more than simply ask difficult questions: It has succeeded in joining the present moment with the memory of an unimaginable event.
Reconstructing Utøya does more than describe the details from the 72 minutes of barbarity. From the reconstruction, a bridge is built between those who carry the memory of the massacre inside them and the rest of us. As the four traumatised survivors sit down with the other twelve to eat, everyone is aware of the heavy load they bring with them to the table. Thus, a connection is made between something as mundane as eating a sandwich and the attempt to describe leaving your fatally wounded brother to save yourself, or what gunshots really sound like.
«Diminishing the length of the terrorism attack is a diminishing of the events that took place.»
An iron rod becomes significant as it gives the right association to the experience of real gunshots – the shots Rakel and the survivors cannot get out of their heads. Jenny heard them from the assembly room. She and her boyfriend had left their alone time in the tent to hear the announcement regarding the explosion in Oslo. The reassurance of their safety at Utøya was soon replaced by the sound of shooting and fatal cries. The couple ran away barefoot and hand in hand. Her boyfriend stopped to help someone – and never caught up with her. Jenny was forced to run away from the shots getting closer and closer, on her own.
Torje tries to hide with his big brother, but his brother is spotted and shot. The young boy can describe what it was like to stare the killer – death itself – in the eye. Torje was only twelve years old when he experienced the massacre. He tells us how he pulled his hair down over his forehead to make himself look younger, hoping the killer might spare him. This odd little detail draws us right into his reality. It allows for an identification that is deeply moving.
Mohammed describes how relaxed the terrorist seemed as he executed one person after the other, with his gun pointed at close range towards their heads. Mohammed tried to stay beneath the water – he would sooner drown than die from the killer’s gunshots. As he reaches the surface of the water, he sees the back of the killer, and his friends dead at the edge of the water.
Mohammed uses some of the teenagers in the film studio to play his friends. They are lying lifeless on the floor. Mohammed asks them to open their eyes. «I wish it were this simple,» he exclaims – that he could simply ask his dead friends to wake up. Mohammed asks the participants to stay seated on the floor while he joins them there. The ensuing silence fills the whole room with tranquillity.
Javér’s method provides the possibility to say goodbye to those who were torn away. It transports parts of the trauma to the black studio floor, upon which the survivors use tape to mark the boundaries for what they can face sharing. In addition to setting the limit for what is reconstructed and re-experienced, the tape is a circumference of the island of Utøya. We have seen white stripes on a black floor before, in Lars von Trier’s Dogville – another film addressing an encounter with human evil.
The story of Utøya is without a doubt best told by those who were there. It is not an easy thing to do. Sharing the trauma takes its toll, but a healing comfort takes place as well. The film shows hell and everyday life existing side by side. We are invited to experience the Utøya survivors and «normal» teenagers lighting a bonfire and becoming close. Sharing and finding a common ground eases the burden of the tragedy. The film insists that we, together as a team, can move on. At the same time, it is the survivors, with their ability to verbalise and describe the trauma, who are the true owners of this unreal story.