Cast members attend the 'U - July 22' premiere during the 68th Berlin International Film Festival. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/ Getty Images)
As the teenage survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., speak out to demand tighter gun control, the young victims of a 2011 massacre in Norway still struggle to be heard and understood. U – July 22, which premiered at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, tries to give a voice to those victims.
On July 22, 2011, after detonating a bomb that killed eight people in Oslo, a right-wing extremist disguised as a policeman turned up at a summer camp on the Norwegian island of Utøya and shot dead 69 people — most of whom were teenagers. The gunman was a white supremacist who targeted the campers because they were junior members of the Norwegian social-democratic Labour Party and because of their liberal, multicultural values.
At the time of the attacks and during the trial a year later, news coverage focused heavily on the shooter. Now, almost seven years later, the feature film reconstruction of that day attempts to shift the focus away from the perpetrator, and toward the victims.
Andrea Berntzen, the film's lead actress, spent time with survivors of the attack to prepare for her role.
"Speaking to the survivors, I learned that they think we need this movie," Berntzen says. "Now they won't have to tell their story themselves, but they can say, 'OK, you can go and watch the movie and maybe we can talk after that.'"
Berntzen plays 19-year-old Kaja who, when we first meet her at the camp, turns to the camera and declares: "You will never understand."
U – July 22 is shot in a single take and follows Kaja as she runs and hides from the relentless sounds of screams and gunshots, and as she comes across the bodies of fellow campers. This single take lasts 72 minutes — the exact amount of time the campers were under attack.
"A lot of the survivors expressed the time it took — those 72 minutes, it felt like an eternity," says the film's director Erik Poppe, a former war photographer. "So I felt like I needed to see if I could be able to do it in one take to bring the audience into that brutality without any chance for really leaving the story."
While based on survivors' testimonies, Kaja's character is purely fictional. Poppe did not want to favor one survivor's story over another. And he acknowledges that U — July 22 makes for harrowing viewing.
"There were a lot of objections toward the film while we were preparing the film," Poppe says, "and I do respect that some of the young people out there and their parents will have a hard time seeing this film."
Poppe held private screenings for the bereaved, and out of consideration for them, no footage — not even a trailer — is being released until the film premieres in Norway next month.
Lisbeth Røyneland chairs a national support group for victims of the attack. She explains that "many victims are told that they have to forget and go on with their lives and this movie really shows why that is so hard."
Røyneland lost her 18-year-old daughter that day. She says that while some victims feel uneasy about the film, others see it as helpful.
"The reason for doing this is telling the story that for so many people has been impossible to tell," says survivor Ingrid Endrerud, now 24 years old. She worked as an adviser on the film and addressed a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival. "Because when I try to explain what I experienced, I'm only able to tell it from a distance. That's where the art of film can tell a story in another way that speaking cannot."
"It's to show what right-wing extremism can lead to," Endrerud also says. "This is hate in its purest form, and as a society, we have to stand together against that."
Mode Steinkjer, arts editor for the Norwegian broadsheet Dagsavisen, says the attacker still writes letters to newspaper editors from prison, vying for attention. Steinkjer adds these letters do not see the light of day, but stresses that it is important not to neglect what happened.
"Norwegians do not want to hear or read anything more about the attacker," he says. "It's important to write artistic books, films, anything that can portray July 22 in a decent way and not let the attacker take the front row once again."
In U – July 22, the attacker is never named — the audience sees him in the distance on just one fleeting occasion. And while uncomfortably immersive, the movie is not graphically violent.
When we finally hear the sound of a helicopter overhead, one of the campers declares, "it's the press, not the police" — a bitter reminder of how the media got to the scene before the rescue services.
"The media carries its own responsibility of how you're treating them [the victims], of course during an attack but also after an attack," Poppe says. "What the film doesn't deal with at all is what happens afterwards: When the media is standing on the land side waiting for them, crazy to get their comments."
The film cuts to black as a local resident steers a boat full of injured teenagers to the mainland. The rest of the story is familiar to the viewer — it was immediately captured by the news cameras waiting on the shore for the survivors.
Almost seven years on, U – July 22 tries to reclaim the story for the victims and reminds the audience that "thoughts and prayers" are more than just tweets.
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