Review: Reconstructing Utøya

How could a person reconstruct or even understand what happened on the Norwegian island of
Utøya on 22 July 2011? The facts state that the terrorist with far-right leanings Andres Behring Breivik, armed with an automatic weapon and a pistol, shot and killed 69 teenagers and wounded dozens more in an attack he devised and carried on by himself, shortly after he detonated a bomb in front of the Government building in Oslo city centre. The principal question here is methodology: should we first understand the motives of the killer and then try to reconstruct what had happened, or should we go other the way around and understand by trying to reconstruct what actually happened?

In his documentary Reconstructing Utøya , the Swedish filmmaker Carl Javér opts for the latter approach, which proves to be the right one, making the film a devastating testament and a moving piece of cinema. Actually, this is the only of the three Utoya-themed titles that actually works and that focuses entirely on the victims rather Breivik or the ideology behind it and the mechanics of the massacre.

The reason for that is quite simple. The film emerged as the end-product of a theatre/film workshop in which four of the Utøya survivors had shared the details of the events from their own perspective with twelve other teens who were employed as actors for the re-creation of specific events on the stage. The equipment they used was fairly basic and makeshift: they used the tape to draw specific scenes and objects (outlines of buildings, woods and coastline), while the shooting noise was recreated by banging a metal rod against the railing. The whole experiment was closely observed by a psychologist and Javér only had to film and to edit the material.

Filmstill from Reconstructing Utoya
Photo credenti: Henrik Bohn Ipsen

The essential thing here, unlike in the case of two previous Utøya-themed fiction films (largely context-free Erik Poppe’s one take extravaganza Utøya : July 22nd in which the author tried to re-create the chaotic atmosphere during the shooting and Paul Greengrass’ context-heavy Netflix-backed docu-drama 22 July which examined not only the massacre, but also the aftermath with the focus on Breivik’s trial), is the lack of pretence to get to the ultimate truth and give the final word about the whole thing. Instead, Reconstructing Utøya is an earnest, honest documentary in which the victims talk about the specific details of the events from their own point of view, trying to grasp as well as to explain to the others what actually happened. Of course, there is quite a bit of  traumatic moments in the process of testifying and filmmaking.

After a quick prologue, the film is divided in four acts, each lead by one of the survivors. The first of them, Rakel, actually shows a substantial talent for stage and film directing due to her attention to details – by, for instance, searching for exactly the same sound of gunfire as she remembers it. The thing that troubles her most about the event is the reaction of her close friend and a fellow survivor who, at one point, declined to help her rather than looking after herself. The next chapter is directed by Mohammed Saleh who saved himself by jumping in the sea pretty soon after the shooting started. He remembers having to look in the face of death – the shooter himself – every time he come to the surface to grab some air, and still he suffers from the survivor’s guilt. Next in line, Jenny Andersen, got surprised during the panic caused by the bomb attack in Oslo when she was having her time alone with her boyfriend, only to get separated from him at one point during the shooting. Finally, there is also Torje Hansen who saw his older brother being shot dead.

Reconstructing Utøya is not just an important first-hand testimony of the senseless attack, it is also an accomplished piece of filmmaking. Meticulously conceived by Javér and his co-writer Frederik Lange, shot by Henrik Bohn Ipsen and edited by Javér and Peter Winter to perfection, it is a strong, emotional documentary that never feels manipulative or exploitative.

Directed by: Carl Javér

Script: Carl Javér and Fredrik Lange

Cinematography: Dff Henrik Bohn Ipsen

Music: Kjetil Schander Luhr

Editors: Carl Javér and Peter Winter

With: Jenny Andersen, Rakel Mortensdatter Birkeli, Torje Hanssen, Mohammed Saleh

98 minutes