Review: Reconstructing Utøya
by Marta Bałaga
- In his group therapy session of a movie, Carl Javér finally lets the survivors of the Utøya rampage talk
It could be argued that the timing couldn’t be worse for the release of Carl Javér’s documentary Reconstructing Utøya [+see also:
film profile], recently presented with the Special Jury Award and the Regional Jury Prize at One World Prague. The tragic events of 22 July 2011, when a bomb exploded outside government offices in Oslo before the massacre continued on the island of Utøya, were covered not just in one, but in two films within the period of just one year: Erik Poppe’s real-time take, U – July 22 [+see also:
interview: Erik Poppe
film profile], and Paul Greengrass’s English-language Netflix drama 22 July [+see also:
film profile]. But although this one can’t compete with their scope, it finds another way to put a new spin on a tragedy that has never quite gone away.
It’s interesting to watch it now, after the recent events in New Zealand – especially given Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s firm decision to focus on the victims, rather than the perpetrator. This “no notoriety” approach is really what Reconstructing Utøya is all about, as except for a fleeting mention, the man responsible is not even named in the opening credits, with the makers opting for the “Norwegian far-right terrorist” instead, and turning to those who survived. All four of them, to be exact, as six years after the attack, they are joined by other young people willing to help them reconstruct their memories.
Stuck in a vast, empty space with nothing but lines on the floor, echoing Dogville [+see also:
film profile], the survivors and their little helpers stage the events, slowly losing themselves in trying to mirror the experience as well as they can, turning it into an odd acting workshop or, as one of them puts it, a “psychological workout”. It’s a concept that works better on paper (or within that actual space) than it does on screen, as after a while, it becomes tiresome to simply be witnessing something that’s all about participation – it’s a bit like watching someone’s therapy session, with all of the words suddenly replaced by puppet-like teens. But it’s also a work that makes one pose a whole lot of questions, and finally it respects the victims enough to give them full control over the whole narrative. There is a reason why people can be completely indifferent to another of their grandfather’s gruelling war stories but become misty-eyed while watching Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old [+see also:
film profile], but what really works best when dealing with such subjects? A glossy retelling or something stripped to the bare bones?
Also, what do the people in question actually get out of the experience, going as far as asking a complete stranger: “Do you want to be me?” There is something almost perverse in their attention to every little detail, as they recreate elaborate scenes and ask to see them again and again. Granted, the idea of reliving one’s traumas in order to finally move on is nothing new, but what about the ones that help them get there, who are increasingly affected by their stories and the unnerving sound of the fired shots? And while this interesting discussion is undercut by a teeth-grindingly sentimental ending, it all comes down to compassion – figuring out if one can feel something just by listening to another person, instead of watching some technical razzle-dazzle while “trying to understand”. Mostly because there is no understanding – there is just letting go.
Reconstructing Utøya was produced by Fredrik Lange, of Vilda Bomben Films. It was co-produced by Polarfox, FilmCamp, Made in Copenhagen and Film i Väst. It is being distributed in Norway by Tour de Force, and its international sales are handled by Cinephil.
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