Painful but necessary: Erik Poppe’s U – July 22

Anne Gjelsvik (1965) is professor in film studies at Department of Art and Media Studies, NTNU. She has been doing research on contemporary cinema, in particular American films and the relationship between film and society. She is currently heading the research project Face of Terror which investigates mediation of terrorism in cinema, news media and literature.


22 July 2011 17.36:
NRK special news broadcast 
Commentator Knut Magnus Berge:

‘There’s no doubt what is happening now will change Norway.’

What has shaped our perception of 22 July, of what happened, what it was like, and what these incidents of terrorism have meant for us and our country?

By ‘us’, I mean all who were not directly and personally affected. For many of us, 22 July has become the recounting of where we were and what we were doing when it happened. Just as Mikkel, the protagonist of Mattis Øybø‘s novel Elskere (2016), repeatedly does: ‘That was part of his story now. I was buying shrimp. I was buying bread. I was on the Underground. I was listening to music. Then the bomb went off.’

Our understanding of what happened has also been forged by a number of factors beyond our own first-hand experience, like the narratives and portrayals in the media, the 2012 trial against Anders Behring Breivik, the Gjørv Report, the political process surrounding the reconstruction of the Government quarter, and the fight over a memorial at Sørbråten. But someone was there. Some were directly affected: in the Highrise, in Grubbegata, at Utøya.

How have their stories shaped our notions of what happened to them, and what the consequences have been in their lives? The stories are there. We have encountered them in news reports and newspaper articles in the days following the terrorist attacks, on the anniversaries of the events, and during the trial. Some have told their stories in front of a camera, in NRKs documentary 22.07 (Svein Bæren, 2012) or TV2’s En liten øy i verden («Terror Island», Tommy Gulliksen, 2011). Photographer Andrea Gjestvang has, in her exceptional book of photographs, One Day in History, thoughtfully portrayed 42 young people who were at Utøya that day. Some survivors have shared their stories in the form of books (Adrian Pracon, Prableen Kaur, and Siri Marie Seim Sønstelie, to mention a few). Some of the 77 who died in the terror attacks have had their short lives recounted by others, like Simon Sæbø and Bano Abobakar Rashid in Åsne Seierstad‘s One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway – and its aftermath (2013), and Håvard Vederhus in Hans Olav Lahlum‘s Et kvart liv («A Quarter of a Life», 2013).

Norwegian books about 22 July now count nearly a hundred. Several of these are works of fiction, like Brit Bildøen‘s Seven Days in August (2014, about parents mourning their dead daughter), or Jan Kjærstad‘s Berge (2017, about a journalist, a lawyer, and the perpetrator of another crime, although with clear references to 22 July).

Though many have requested artistic explorations of 22 July, especially from Norwegian writers of poetry and fiction, news of the events ‘being turned into film’ (two feature films, a documentary and a television series) has been met with complaints that making movies based on this material is too much, too close, too soon, too spectacular or even speculative.

Erik Poppe‘s film U – July 22 is close, spectacular, but never speculative. It is painful and difficult to watch, but it is exceptionally well made, and it is good that it has been made.

«One week last summer». (Andrea Gjestvang.)
Ylva. (Andrea Gjestvang.)


Lingering long minutes

22 July 2011 23.06:
NRK special news broadcast
Terrorism expert Anders Romarheim:

‘People who have gone through a nightmare, one I think none of us can fully fathom the realities of, what it has been and still is like, those hours those people spent on that island with a man going around shooting people.’

It is still difficult to imagine what it was like for the 564 people who were at the small island Utøya that day, and it has been difficult to imagine how one could possibly depict this situation, or rather these situations. While all who were there share something, each experience was different. The portrayal of the minutes these young people spent in a nightmare is only defensible if the film appears authentic and believable. And while it has to be true, it can never pretend to be the whole truth.

Succeeding with such a project depends on a number of things, but three elements stand out to me as essential: meticulous pre-production work, clear aesthetical choices, and decency. My initial thought after seeing the film for the first time was that it was thoroughly decent.

The latter is of course intimately connected with the former, and it seems appropriate here to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard’s famous postulate about the camera’s relationship with ethics, as Paul Schrader does in an article about camera movement: ‘Camera movement has deep and powerful roots—moral roots, as Godard would maintain—and it’s one of the things that makes film an art’. The context for Godard’s famous line, ‘Tracking shots are a question of morality’, was a discussion about film’s (lack of) ability to recreate atrocities like the Holocaust. Godard criticised, among other things, films whose approach to the tragic were too close and sentimental, using, for example, close-ups of faces. In his words: Tragedy is not a movie star.

The most important aesthetical choice made by Erik Poppe in U – July 22 is to follow a single character, 18-year old Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), closely, using a single camera in a long take that makes up most of the film. (Or, more accurately: a few takes seamlessly edited together to appear as one. Shooting was also done chronologically and consecutively, adding to this effect.) Critics are wont to say that such a governing device robs the audience of the opportunity to change their focus and distance themselves from the painful things happening on-screen. Another objection against the long take is that it is often beautiful and spectacular, and as such draws attention to itself.

The latter can, for instance, be argued in the case of well-known films such as Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) (both with cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki). The long takes have multiple effects in U – July 22, but unlike these spectacular examples, the technique here draws attention to the events at Utøya, rather than the making of the film itself. László Nemes’s masterful Holocaust portrayal Son of Saul (2015) is a good example of an earlier film that attempts and achieves something similar.

The camera technique brings us close to the people, to the island, to time. As expected, the long take helps us get very close to Kaja, her choices and what she sees, does, experiences and feels. Because we are always where she is – and, more importantly perhaps, where the only camera is – we get a very strong sense of place: of the café, the campsite, the woods and the shore. But more than anything, this move does something to the spectator’s perception of time. 72 minutes of film have never felt so unbearably long.

Martin Otterbeck’s handheld camera contributes to a sense of presence and unease in a way that is hard to pin down. The camera is not subjective, it does not see what Kaja sees; it sometimes knows more than her. But neither is it objective; just like everyone else on the island, it is unaware of who is shooting, and where the shooter (or shooters) is at any given time. One must first and foremost listen for the answer, or let one’s gaze sweep the landscape without being seen. Or run and hide, lie down upon the wet, cold ground, look for escape routes that cannot be found, because this is an island. The camera is both witness to and character in the story. While the camera appears not to know where to look, Otterbeck at the same time displays an eye for the tactile: naked skin between trousers and t-shirts, living hands clutching dead, a leaf stuck in the hair of a survivor.


Dreams for the future

22 July 2011 23.14:
NRK special news broadcast
Minister of Justice Knut Storberget:

‘Atrocious acts that have struck at what is perhaps the jewel of Norway, Norwegian youth working for a better world, at home or abroad. To my mind, this is among the most peaceful and beautiful things Norwegian kids can participate in.’

The second choice I must foreground is how the film, short as it is, manages to contain so much of what happened, and represent so many of those that were there. Kaja represents the politically conscious youth at Utøya, and is as such a powerful homage to the young people who might have represented the Labour party in Stortinget or on city councils today, but who never came home. She also becomes an image of those who managed to help others. But her little sister, persuaded along by her more politically-minded sister, herself more interested in having fun, is also here; so is the boy looking to chat up girls, who dreams of having children; so are people from the West of Norway, so are Muslims, so are children. By having Kaja move around the island in search for her younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne), Poppe and the writers (Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram) find room in their story for many different situations: not being able to reach the police on the phone, hiding, alone or together, seeking or providing comfort, not having room for others, achieving calm or being overwhelmed by panic, surviving or dying.

Two scenes stand out to me as the most heart-breaking. Kaja finds a girl (a very effective Solveig Koløen Birkeland) shot in the woods, and attempts to keep her alive and hopeful through thoughts of her mother and their cabin in Austevoll. And Kaja calls her own mother in a moment where she herself breaks down and cries. The thought of the parents who received such calls, which for some of them were the last conversations they would ever have with their children, is almost unbearable, as is the thought of the phones that kept ringing, soundlessly, throughout the night, with no answer.

Poppe and Otterbecks images are never speculative. The bodily destruction is not in focus here. And because the most disturbing pictures have been omitted, Gisle Tveito‘s soundscapes are what actually create the film’s strongest images. The sounds of gunshots are loud, dominant, and frightening. The shots also define time and place, and are the most important tool by which the young people can navigate the island, understand what is happening and where. For the spectator, who knows what happened, the shots, and the screams, are aural reminders of the fatal consequences of the atrocity. The majority of those killed at Utøya were struck by two or more bullets.

Silence contributes as a contrast, and to enhance tension. At one point, Kaja is hiding in a tent as someone walks by outside. The sounds made by her shell trousers and rubber mattress seem deafening, and sure to give her away. But beyond this, the film’s elements of suspense appear toned-down. The course of the actions is shaped not by the conventions of the movie thriller, but by the timeline of the real events the film is based on.

In its closing titles, U – July 22 is described as a ‘reality-based fiction film’, and this double status imbues the work with balance as well as force. Kaja is a construction, but, just as the other fictionalized camp participants, she is based on interviews with and input from young people who were really there. The location where the film was shot is geographically near the real island, and as close in appearance as possible. The number of shots fired in the film equals the number fired that day. The time it takes is the time it took.

This quivering duality is vividly expressed in the film’s two onsets. It begins with the title: ‘22nd of July 2011, Oslo 15.17’, followed by authentic surveillance footage from when the Government quarter bomb went off, as well as private eyewitness videos from the minutes following. The starting point for the movie thus becomes: This happened. The next onset, ‘Utøya 17.06’, begins with Kaja approaching a stationary camera, looking straight into it, straight at us, and saying: ‘You will never understand. Listen to me’. By breaking the convention dictating that fictional characters should not address their audience directly, the film offers commentary on itself, saying: This is a construction. At the same time, we are told that we are about to experience something that is both true and difficult to grasp, but that we should try. This scene in itself is a subtle representation of the duality of the film as a whole: Kaja is speaking to us, but ‘really’, within the fiction of the film, she is speaking on the phone to her mother.

Because of the barbaric and tragic nature of the events at Utøya, the massacre has to some extent overshadowed the bombing of the Government quarter. By including authentic footage from this event, the film gains essential context for its subject matter, and these recordings also serve as an important reminder that 22 July was a politically motivated act of terrorism.


Marks left by memories

22 July 2011 20.31:
NRK special news broadcast
Mayor of Oslo Fabian Stang:

‘Initially one thinks this will make society worse, but I like being the optimist, to think that those who have died today will not have died in vain. They will be our role models, so we can become even prouder to be Norwegian citizens, love each other more, be even better at caring for one another.’

Following the terrorist attacks against the Norwegian government, the Labour party and AUF in 2011, and particularly after the trial against Anders Behring Breivik in 2012, Norway has been torn between two different approaches to what happened: The desire to remember and the desire to forget.

That contradiction appeared most clearly in relation to the conflict surrounding the memorial at Sørbråten, but also in the relatively limited enthusiasm for Åsne Seierstad’s book One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway – and its aftermath, which was published the year after the trial. This powerful, thorough and, for posterity, important work was also met with objections like ‘Why now?’, ‘Why yet another book?’, and claims that it was too brutal and voyeuristic. Emblematic of this strong wish to finally be free of Anders Behring Breivik is A-Magasinet’s front page at the end of the trial, with an illustration by Håvard Bjelland and the headline ‘The word relief has never been used so often’.

In interviews, Erik Poppe has said a motivation for making this film was that the perpetrator had received too much attention and his victims too little. Already in his essay ‘The name and the number’ (published in Klassekampen 20.08.2011), Karl Ove Knausgård described this all too common process following terrorism and other criminal misdeeds:

‘Soon we will refer to what happen in a regular turn of phrase, we will call it ‘The Utøya Tragedy’ or ‘The Utøya Massacre’, and it will denote something terrible, for all of us. But the name we who were not directly affected will remember, that we will associate with what happened, is the name of the malefactor. That was the case with the bomb in Oklahoma. We know the name of he who performed the misdeed, it was Timothy McVeigh, and we know how many he killed, one hundred and fifty eight, but we don’t know the name of a single one of those people. They have become numbers… In a number, there is a distance, and that was the distance Stoltenberg dispelled when he named those three names in his speech in the church. A name is the opposite of a number. A name is unique. A name is individual. A name does not refer to just any person, but to this particular person, to this particular face and just that peculiar light in these particular eyes… For us to understand what happened, we only need one name and one face: This happened to you,’

Although I agree that victims and survivors should be put front and center, I do not share Poppe’s view that the terrorist should receive no more attention. There is a risk in that of trivializing evil, of detaching it from its political context.

Along with colleagues from NTNU and the University of Copenhagen I am currently researching the media’s portrayals of terrorism. One question we are examining concerns what is given attention in the media (events, victims, terrorists, causes, solutions), and the consequences of what is depicted in different media. It is true, as Poppe points out, that the names and faces of the victims now have disappeared from Norwegian media (even memorial sites established online are already gone), while the perpetrator’s face appears with some regularity. But the importance of remembering who he was and what he represented feels immediate in a time and a media reality where terrorist increasingly appears synonymous with jihadist.

«Memory Wound» (


22 July 2011 19.24.:
NRK special news broadcast
Helge Lurås:

‘It doesn’t have to be a group with an international agenda, these could be local groups, elements from Norwegian immigrant community exhibiting antipathy towards norwegian society.’

The perception that terrorist equals Muslim is also touched upon in the film. ‘Is it, like, terrorism?’, Magnus (Aleksander Holmen), a participant at the summer camp, asks when news of the bomb in Oslo reaches Utøya. One of the others, Issa (Sorosh Sadat), quickly replies ‘I hope it wasn’t Muslims who did it, or all hell will break loose’.

This is why the film’s focus, in its closing titles, on the terrorist’s goals, ideology and notion of an enemy is both crucial and correct; without it, the atrocities could not be contextualized. It is also important that others pick up where this film leaves off.


To see or not to see

18 February 2018
Now This:
Emma Gonzalez (activist/survivor of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School 14 February 2018):

«I know it is hard to watch those videos, and some people are saying «how dare they post something like that». No, if we had to live through it you should have to live through it too, if that’s what it’s gonna take for you to understand what it feels like then watch the freakin video.»

Seeing this film, thinking about it, and writing about it, has been difficult, and it has affected me for days. This film is not for everyone, but I think it is for many more than many think.

‘Do we need to see this?’ or ‘What good will making a film do?’, are of course pertinent questions. But, above all, it is important to remember that not everyone has their own memories of 22 July. Those who today embark on their teens were young children when this happened, and the narratives we create now are both for those who still remember and those who were not yet born. For the youth of today, as for many others, reaching for the books of Åsne Seierstad, Aage Storm Borchgrevink (A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya, 2012) or Kjetil Stormark (Da terroren rammet Norge: 189 minutter som rystet verden/When Terrorism Struck Norway, 189 Minutes that Shocked the World, 2012) to understand may not be the obvious choice.

While choosing whether or not to see the film is up to the individual, it does come with challenges not so easily avoided. The media attention surrounding this film, and the other films soon to come (Reconstructing Utøya [Carl Javér] will appear in cinemas this autumn; Norway [Paul Greengrass] is to be released on Netflix around the same time; Sara Johnsen and Pål Sletaunes television series will premiere on NRK in 2019) can be difficult for survivors and loved ones, and is not something one can opt out of.

I often defend film as a medium from those who see a contradiction between film and art, or think film can only ever be entertainment. We are so used to encountering killers, violence and gunfire as part of entertainment products, that the notion of a film about mass murder being something other than that might seem alien. Sitting down in a full theatre, where others in the audience had brought popcorn and sweets, to see this film, was thus disconcerting.

Perhaps we have become more desensitized to violence. The latest crime fiction about serial killers, or the latest school massacre on the news, might pass us by without leaving much of a trace or spurring much reflection. But maybe film as a medium, and a film such as this specifically, can help combat our insensitivity, as Indiewire film critic David Ehrlich claims in a piece linking Poppes film to American school shootings. That was my sense, at least, as I, along with everybody else in a full theatre, sat quiet and motionless until all of the end credits, and the final notes of Wolfgang Plagge‘s moving soundtrack, were gone.

Cinema has qualities and characteristics that make unique experiences possible, and as such, film can offer different kinds of explorations of these incidents of terrorism than literature, music, or other visual arts can. When people hesitate to approach Utøya as a filmic experience, it is particularly in fear of encountering images they wish not to see, or have attempted to avoid creating for themselves. But the film does not visualise violence nearly as much as one might fear, and I am not the only one to express relief that it is less painful to watch than expected. Many of the young people who were there on that day did not witness violence directly; they saw paths, rocks, bushes, and other frightened and desperate kids. The facts described in the verdict from the 22 July trial is far, far more brutal than this film.

As a fact-based fiction film, U – July 22 supplements the information offered by the verdict, the reports, the non-fiction prose and the news media. Not even Åsne Seierstad’s literary approach and multi-faceted perspective provided the intensity Poppe and his team have achieved in their rendering of what the kids on the island experienced during those 72 minutes of executions. It is too soon to say how important this work will be to us, but I am already certain that it will provide us with new insights. It could also potentially become politically significant.

What U – July 22 offers, as the first work on this subject matter so far, is a sense of presence. It brings us very close to the camaraderie, and the loneliness; it captures frightened breaths. It shows us how easy it was to trip on the steep slopes, how few places there were to hide, how muddy it was (although the real place was even wetter). What we are left with is not mainly images in our minds or sounds in our ears; it is an engulfing bodily sensation. I have felt the island against my back, because I have lain on pine needles along with Kaja and other terrified youths. I have felt Tyrifjorden against my shins, because I have tossed my shoes and attempted to wade to safety upon the sharp rocks there. I have been frozen, by fear and by the cold. I have felt my heart pounding in my chest as I try to hide behind a rock face that offers no shelter. 22 July has, with this film, been given body as well as face.

And this is why I am happy U – July 22 was made, and that Erik Poppe was the one to pick up this immense challenge and put it on his own, and his collaborators’, shoulders. Together with a strong team of contributors, not least the young amateur actors led by Andrea Berntzen, the director has given life and soul to the events of that day. Working through a trauma that has affected so many is a heavy undertaking, and bringing such a project home requires determination, skill, experience, and a strong moral compass. U – July 22 is Poppes most important work, and as such it is a good thing that it is also his best.


Translated from Norwegian by Marta Eidsvåg.

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