Utøya: Should Filmmakers Continue to Depict Terrorist Attacks?

With the news of the release of two separate films depicting the events of the 2011 Utøya attack in Norway, Mailies Fleming explores the moral implications of depicting terrorist attacks on screen.

As the month of September ushered in the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, it seems terrorism has found a permanent home in the dark underbelly of Western society. Whilst political violence is not new to the Western world and is arguably the corrupted cousin of free speech, the age of the internet has provided terrorism with a global platform on which to beat its chest, whilst the era of fake news has made this global platform extremely volatile. The guidelines for media portrayals of terrorism are clearly set out for broadcasters such as the BBC, but using terrorist incidents as the plots for a feature film blurs these lines significantly.

Seven years after 77 people were left dead by the worst terrorist attacks suffered by Norway in modern history, 2018 has seen the release of two films depicting these attacks. Both films draw their titles from the 22nd July 2011, the fatal day on which right-wing extremist and terrorist Anders Behring Breivik bombed the Norwegian parliament, killing eight people and wounding hundreds more and then disguised himself as a police officer to enter the island of Utøya where he hunted down 69 young people attending a summer camp by the governing Norwegian Labour party.

Erik Poppe’s Utøya –July 22 debuted at the Berlin film festival in February where it “drew praise from survivors as a painful but necessary examination of the dangers of far-right extremism and domestic terrorism within Europe”. In addition to this, Netflix is soon to release Paul Greengrass’s July 22, recently screened at the Venice film festival where it received markedly harsher criticisms than Poppe’s docudrama. This has reignited debates around the ethical implications of portraying terrorism on screen. As director of the 2006 drama United 93, Greengrass is a veteran of the moral minefield in which horrific historical moments are transformed into entertainment, yet he has come under fire for both the form and balance of content in July 22. Whilst Poppe’s film borrows from the methodology Greengrass used in United 93, in that Utøya’s running time aligns with the fatal 72 minutes it took for the massacre to end in real-time, Greengrass’ July 22 has a broader temporal scope. In an interview at Venice film festival, Greengrass revealed that his Netflix feature would focus on the aftermath of the attack, grappling with the difficulties faced by one survivor and his family during the course of Breivik’s trial.

Instead of the single-take documentary-style used by Poppe in which he attempts to remain as authentic as possible towards the testimonies of survivors rather than focusing on Breivik’s character, the setting of Greengrass’ film over a broader time-frame allows Breivik to be portrayed on screen. Although Greengrass and Poppe both worked closely with victims and their families, by drifting away from a storyline that simply recounts the attack and honors the heroism of the victims, Greengrass expanded his narrative into the events after the fact and allowed himself the imaginative freedom which brings with it the risk of politicizing the narrative. Whilst Greengrass outlined his intentions as showing how the protagonist, Viljers, clung to his beliefs whilst facing his attacker in court, it seems ethically dubious to give mass-murderer Breivik even more publicity. Additionally, Greengrass’ decision to release his film on Netflix – due to the company’s understanding of consumer demand and resultant ability to reach a younger audience – has raised concern amongst those who feel that Netflix’s instant gratification model threatens the future of cinematic filmmaking.

Yet the decision to use fictionalised film, rather than docudrama, reflects a pertinent observation made by King’s College London’s senior lecturer in film studies Dr Belén Vidal, that “fiction is not the opposite of fact” and that both are forms of storytelling. Vidal explains that “the moment in which facts begin to circulate they are already turned into narrative, whether as news reports or amateur video uploaded onto YouTube. We make sense of events through storytelling.” Whilst the physical violence of acts of terror is undeniably abhorrent, recognising that terrorism pits warring ideologies (or political narratives) against each other reveals that its power lies in its strategic manipulation of fear. Rather than the hysterical Trumpian rhetoric that conflates ‘terrorist’ with an individual identity, a ‘terrorist’ can be reframed as an individual seeking political ends through perverse methods of communication. This does not justify the perpetuation of twisted ideologies in feature films, but it does highlight the capacity for such films to contribute to a culture which either perpetuates or curbs the fear and alienation that fuels terrorism.

Greengrass’ July 22 speaks to this need for a critical engagement with the emotional distancing between terrorists and society, with the protagonist insisting in the trailer that “I wanna make him [Breivik] see what he’s done”. By creating a protagonist who advocates from the beginning for a society in which “everyone is welcome” and maintains his commitment to multiculturalism and human connection in the face of an unforgiving attempt to violently suppress such ideals, Greengrass may have succeeded in making an important artistic contribution to a fraught political debate.

For filmmakers dealing with the darkest elements of humanity, the line between exploitation and moral duty is a thin one to tread. In our globally interconnected contemporary moment, the line between the virtual and the real, between fact and fiction is equally as thin and even silence is a political statement. Whilst making a spectacle of suffering for the purpose of profit is morally reprehensible, the suffering caused by terrorism is politicised from the outset, so it may as well be leveraged to combat the social fragmentation which terrorism aims to cause.

Mailies Fleming

Image Courtesy of Erik Aavatsmark/Netflix