This is an observational documentary and the article is based on segments from the work in progress.
The movie theatre in Filmens Hus in Oslo, Norway is painfully empty of people. Only a score or so have found their way to the work-in-progress meeting with the three men who represent the Scandinavian team behind the documentary film Reconstructing Utøya. Has the saturation point for reconstructions of the 2011 Utøya summer camp massacre already been reached?
The scanty attendance feels embarrassing and awkward. The Swedish director Carl Javér is seated in a chair on stage as he presents the method of making this «observational documentary.» With his regular producer Fredrik Lange from the Vilda Bomben production company, he speaks of the two weeks spent filming in a blackened studio at FilmCamp, deep in Troms county, Norway. Five surviving youths have participated. Four of them have directed twelve other youths in order to create their own reconstructions of events. They’ve used white floor-marking tape to delineate landscape features. I start having doubts. Is the concept too absurdist for the context? Have they lifted the black floor and the white tape straight out of Lars von Trier’s Dogville – the film that depicts how far human cruelty can go when there are no consequences? Are artistic approaches to this sensitive issue at all appropriate?
Before I have time to pursue my train of thought any further, the team wants to show us segments of a reconstruction from the film. The setting, as promised, is a blackened studio. A young woman with translucent skin and bright, sorrow-laden eyes appears. She immediately catches my attention. Her salty, northern dialect contrasts sharply with her frail appearance. Speaking to the young actors under her charge, she recalls a moment of camaraderie with her northern friends who passed away in the attack. They chanted, «Torsk og Hyse, Torsk og Hyse» («Cod and haddock, cod and haddock»). The chant sounds wonderfully life affirming and defiant. The young woman recounts how she and her friends were eagerly anticipating the disco dance that was supposed to be held that night at the Utøya summer camp, but which never took place.
«Four survivors have directed twelve youths in order to create their own reconstructions of events.»
She strikes a wrench hard and probingly against different surfaces in the stripped-down film studio, listening, searching, for the right sound. She shudders involuntarily as a hard, metallic bang shatters the silence. Her face changes. She’s back at Utøya and takes me with her. She talks about the dangerous silence, about navigating away from the gunshots. They were fleeing from the sound. But without the gunshots, it was impossible to know where the perpetrator was.
Back in the movie theatre, the team describes how they contacted the support group for the 22 July survivors to discuss the project, and about the youths who came forward asking to take part in the movie. They were conscious of not wanting to «pursue» the survivors, but to allow them to make the first move. The stories would be told on their own terms. The film team kept their distance during the filming too, preferring to leave the survivors in charge. In this way the film becomes the first authentic story told by, and for, the generation that was subjected to the terror.
The room is suddenly abuzz with questions. An audience member from a school outside Oslo wonders whether it would be appropriate to show the movie to his students. The team warms up to the questions, including the third team member, the Norwegian co-producer from Polarfox. They enthusiastically recount the story about the psychologist who got so involved that he not only supported the youths during his appointed hours, but also insisted on following them through the whole process. They describe having heaps of gripping material on their hands and about an editing process that was correspondingly time-consuming. The awkward feeling from the first minutes is replaced by a reverential glow, by reflection. Now I realise that the choice of the blackened studio makes perfect sense. That it provides a soothing distance to the topic. Perhaps it even has the effect of a black hole, sucking things in so that they disappear forever.
Present vs. past
Javér underlines the importance of being in «the present,» rather than living in the past, arguing that the survivors are resistance heroes due to their insistence on surviving. He talks about the sheer power of their reconstructions, and about one of the survivors who came forward on behalf of those who didn’t manage to escape, only to change the story so that everyone did. It feels as if the black studio used in the reconstructions is charged with the connection between the actors and the survivors.
«The blackened studio is charged with the connection between the actors and the survivors.»
Now my tears are coming, but they are tears of reconciliation. I’m not the only one in the audience to be moved. To me, this filmmaking method has provided the most powerful, authentic stories about how it felt on that day of sorrow.
On screen, in another segment of the reconstruction, a large square has been delineated on the floor. It represents the rescue vessel that carried the survivors off the island. «We start circumventing the island. Then, of course, we notice. We get an idea of the magnitude of it because it’s only now that we can see the splashes of colour on the island – who are the dead.» The girl who is talking halts. Around her are the twelve youths who have followed her closely throughout the process. They would so much like to know, to understand.
«And I remember how many of the people in the boat were crying and looking at the island. And I look at the island and feel this pain inside me, but I’m not crying. I remember thinking, ‘Where are my feelings?’ It hurt, but I couldn’t cry. So I’m wondering if you could lie down here and there, someone can lie at the water’s edge and others can lie on land … you go here and you go there … yes.»
The girl observes how the others embody her account. They are placed around the room – as a ship captain, as survivors. She nods. The reconstruction gives meaning, it corresponds to the images she has in her head. The youths are carrying the burden of her experience with her, sharing her emotions. She hesitates again. Then, finally, come the tears, the tears that have been repressed for so long. The youths rise and form a circle around her. They hug, talk and laugh. They walk out of the black studio, into the daylight of the forest surrounding it. They light a bonfire. The flames shed new light as the joy and companionship that was taken from them come back.
If you can only bear to watch one film about Utøya, I strongly recommend watching this one. Although I only watched a few segments of one of the survivor’s reconstructions, it moved me so much that even writing this review felt hard. No matter what the screening attendance numbers say, this documentary is a success, through what the youths have achieved both with and for each other.