Utoya: July 22

July 22 is the date, in 2011, of the horrifying attack on a tiny Norwegian island by a gunman who opened random fire on a summer camp for the youth wing of Norway’s Labour Party.

Recently, director Paul Greengrass tried to make sense of the event with his film, July 22, now on Netflix, and which took a several-stranded viewpoint (in every segment, everyone spoke English), continuing after the massacre up until the killer, Anders Breivik, went on trial.

This Norwegian-language film, directed by Erik Poppe, practically ignores Breivik. We hear only his booming gunfire and are instead plunged into the chaos he caused by sticking with the viewpoint of the terrified teenagers hiding in the woods and rocks from his seemly ineluctable onslaught.

In particular we experience the event from the point of view of Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), a well-respected and ambitious young woman determined to help others but mostly, desperately seeking her younger sister whom she’s lost as the campers flee in all directions to hide.

Shot in almost real time, over the 75 minutes the slaughter lasted, Kaja’s face trembles with every emotion, all the anger, the confusion, the fear, the determination to survive, the tears and the defiance. 

Poppe shoots in breathless close up, a technique so immersive and jarring I had to move from my seat at the front of the screening room to one at the back, just to get a little perspective and breathing space. It’s an assault on the senses and on sense itself – we, like Kaja, are baffled as to what’s happening and why. 

I’ve now seen two attempts to make sense of the Utoya massacre, and whilst both approaches display bravura film technique, neither can fully comprehend the act. Perhaps such moments of inhumanity are inexplicable, even through the manipulation of the movie screen – Greengrass’ film put Breivik in the dock but couldn’t get near to his truth; Poppe’s film leaves us bewildered, dazed in the middle of the storm he created. They often say that the movie camera sees everything but perhaps even the most powerful lens goes blank when there is no soul left to see.