Sunday 15 July 2018

Scandinavian Film Festival - Peter Hourigan reviews U-JULY 22 (Erik Poppe, Norway)

Among the too many acts of violence and terrorism the two incidents in Norway in 2011 have stood out. In the middle of the afternoon, there was an explosion in the government quarters of Oslo, killing 8 people and injuring many more. Less than two hours later, an attack occurred on the island of Utøya, where a summer camp for youth members of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party was being held. This lone wolf attack killed 69 people, and also injured several hundred more.
A film based on this latter event is being screened in the current Palace Scandinavian Film Festival. In Norway, the impact of those two incidents is such that you only need to say ‘July 22’ and people know what you’re referring to.  So, the film only needs the name U – July 22, the U referring to the island, Utøya.  The director is Erik Poppe, who made the recent The King’s Choice (2016), which I did not see.
The attack on the island started at 5.22 pm and lasted for 73 minutes when the shooter surrendered to the first police to demand he lay down his arms.  The final single shot of the film also lasts exactly 73 minutes.  But we do not see any shooting, or the shooter aiming at people.  Rather, the hand-held camera stays with one girl for the whole time, and we experience the incident as it would have been experienced by one person caught up in it, trying to find out what is going on, scared for her own life, anxious for her younger sister who she hasn’t seen since before the first shot.
Andrea Berntzen as Kaja, U- July 22
The characters in the film are fictional – there was not a girl called Kaja  or a missing sister called Emilie. But the story was developed from all the accounts of the survivors, and is probably an example where a fiction can get closer to the truth than an actual documentary.
This focus on Kaja means that many of the traps of this kind of story are avoided. There is no graphic violence, no brains spurting out of an exploded head, or malicious grins on the face of a gunman. In fact, in the whole film we only catch a brief possible glimpse of him once, a silhouetted figure some distance away on the ridge of the hill. This denies him the notoriety of becoming a movie character – and I am honouring that by not naming him in this review. 
In fact, people caught up in an incident like this do not know who the gunman is. They would only have their own fears and panic, and by adopting this approach to telling the story, the film puts their experience foremost.  We spend most of the 73 minutes with Kaja who is probably 16 or 17. The camera follows her where she runs, looks out from her hiding places, catches glimpses of people running in panic as she would see them.  
The technical logistics of achieving this in a film are breathtaking.  The island is 11 hectares in size, and Kaja would seem to cover a lot of this area during the 73 minutes, from wooded areas in the centre of the island, to cliffs and cold seas around Utøya.  We also hear what she would have heard – and in particular the dull thud of all the shots, seeming to come from all around.  It must have taken weeks of planning and rehearsal for Andrea Berntzen as Kaja, for the cameraman, Martin Otterbeck and all the extras, co-coordinating action over the whole area.  It is reported that they did five takes of this sequence, able to achieve only one on any single day.
This decision to focus on one character is significant because it really throws the light on those caught up in such an incident, which challenges us to reflect on how we would have behaved. Kaja comes across   others hiding campers, and we can see a range of responses as people try to cope with this terror.  It is also commendable that this approach does not give the perpetrator the oxygen of fame and publicity.
But it is also a limiting approach.  Just as important as asking ourselves how would we have reacted, is trying to understand how such an incident could happen.  And because of its approach, U July 22 cannot address this.  Think of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant,based on the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.  Van Sant’s approach allows us to identify with people who will be caught up in the shooting, as well as enigmatically giving us some insight into the shooters, so we can speculate on possible causes – which is the prelude to hopefully avoiding such events in the future.   From what we learn about the victims we do develop a sense of the value of the lives lost, the variety of their potentials. We do not have that in U July 22.
So, a film certainly worth seeing – but also a film where I’d say what you see on first viewing is probably all you’d get from repeated viewings, apart from being able to admire even more the complexity of that 73 minute final single shot.

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