Morality of trauma re-enactments is questionable when undertaken as an aesthetic experiment

Manon Girault on Erik Poppe’s ‘Utøya – 22 July / Utøya 22. Juli’ (2018)

AFTER HAVING LONG BEEN OF DISCUSSION within Norway and within the Scandinavian Film Market, Erike Poppe’s polemical Utøya 22. Juli eventually premiered at the 68th Berlin Film Festival. The film chronicles the two events behind Norway’s most recent scars, a tragedy caused by a far-right extremist for disagreeing with his country’s political standing and whose identity Poppe has preferred not to reveal for his latest project. Instead, he foregrounds attention towards the massacre’s victims – a more ‘human’ focus.

On the titular date, July 22nd, in the early afternoon, Oslo’s government quarter is bombed. In his film, Poppe portrays the first disaster by gathering clips of found-footage before confronting his viewers with a ‘fictionalised version’ of the Utøya carnage, a brutal transposition. The re-enactment of the disaster is certainly convincing. The Norwegian director has made something as close to feeling present on that very day whilst in the comfort of an auditorium. Much like Gus Van Sant’s over-aestheticised Elephant, the film’s duration matches that of the disaster, as the camera latches onto the main protagonist, Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), in one long-take and over-the-shoudler angle for the duration of the film. The film’s emotional density is intensified by the somber setting of the island, a projection of the catastrophe’s atmosphere. Spectators are trapped alongside the victims.

This fictionalised point-of-view has been conceived by the director with good intention, to allow the real victims their privacy and avoid a case of an imposed or falsified memory. The film opens on Kaja talking to her mother over the phone about the recent Oslo bombings. By staring into the lens, the limited perspective of the camera aligns with the limited perspective of the trauma from Kaya’s perspective. Nonetheless, Kaja being the single main character also means she has the responsibility of representing the experience of all other victims on the island, which particularly causes the plot to feel, at times, over-dramatised.

With a film like Utøya 22. Juli, which seeks to represent trauma, though spectators do not necessarily feel guilty about their passivity in relation to the characters’ standing, they nonetheless are forced to question the reason of attending such a screening knowing exactly what will occur. On a personal level, being of Norwegian origin with family still residing in the country and with friends concerned by these matters, the sense of responsibility to watch the film motivated me. Yet, the feeling of ‘torture porn’ when viewing such a picture is hard to escape, and my national origin is no ethical or righteous motive above any other. In the end, this is a film about a weakened female subject suffering. While it is natural for us to want to reflect more upon the potential cathartic purpose, an uncertainty of purpose and our ability to sit through the entirety of the film remains bothersome.

Poppe has succeeded at affecting his viewers in a somewhat respectable manner. Utøya 22. Juli immerses us into the subjective narrative, a world where gunshots sound in relation to Kaja’s position. While the continuous fight to live is recognised, so is the paradoxical monstrosity of human destruction. Yet, when re-enactments of real trauma become aesthetic experiments, perhaps we need to think further about the moral implications.

Screened as part of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival

Manon Girault

By Manon Girault

Manon Girault is a freelance writer, producer, and documentary filmmaker. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London and Ethnographic & Documentary Film (MA) from University College London.