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Should filmmakers fail to comment on their contemporaries?

The murders in Congo, 22 July, Utøya 22. July
Regissør: Marius Holst Paul Greengrass Erik Poppe
(Norge, USA, Norge, Norge)

Norwegian feature films and drama series often fetch material from reality.


This year, the first feature films about the 22 terror attack came. July and the Murders in Congo – to mixed reception. But is it desirable that filmmakers fail to comment on their contemporaries?

Stories from the Second World War have proven to draw large numbers of audiences, but historical biography films are also a popular film genre here at home. At Christmas comes the big film about Sonja Henie – which, though it may turn out to be somewhat different from the last decade's Norwegian "biopics". In part because it doesn't seem to be a traditional hero story, but especially because it's not one male historical figure portrayed.

In addition, this year's Norwegian film premieres can glimpse a slightly different trend, which dramatizes events that are closer to the current news picture. Seven years after the terrorist attack on the government quarter and Utøya, this was portrayed in several films, with Utøya 22. juli by Erik Poppe as the first. This fall also came Marius Holsts The murders in Congo, who told about Joshua French and Tjostolv Moland's shady businesses, and subsequent death sentences, in DR Congo.

Many commented that a feature film should be made about the events of July 22, 2011, as British Paul Greengrass has also done this year with his Netflix movie July 22, based on Åsne Seierstad's book One of us. Skepticism is understandable, while probably reflecting a notion that feature films are synonymous with entertainment films – which is not always the case. But there was probably an assumption in the film industry that there was a certain audience potential in this, despite the fact that it is obviously a problematic topic to go into. And let's be honest: Although Erik Poppe appears as a very humanistic and socially engaged filmmaker, the production company Paradox – which Poppe himself co-owns – is among the more commercially oriented in Norway.

The murders in Congo for its part, took on the story of two Norwegians who, in the eyes of many, have already received more than enough media attention and who many feared would be portrayed as heroes. With the documentary series about the murder of Birgitte Tengs and the triple murder at Orderud farm «true crime»- the wave seriously washed over Norwegian television screens. The case of Moland and French presumably arouses the same curiosity among the audience, and the producers in Friland have probably also envisioned that a film about the Congo case could have some earning potential.


22 July Director Paul Greengrass

True crime documentaries can also be accused of entertaining real-life tragedies, but at least they belong to the documentary genre – with another "covenant" with the viewer about the relationship to this reality. And one should also not reject the journalistic work behind the mentioned TV series. The murders in Congo is based on very extensive research, but the filmmakers have also had to dictate in certain parties to make the narrative coherent. In addition, when there is a story where much remains unanswered, it is timely to ask why fictionmovie about this. How does one know what is truth and what is the poetry of what the film presents?

There is a certain skepticism about movies that are based on real events.

However, the fiction film has some other possibilities to illuminate reality than the documentary. Admittedly, with several intersection points: The observational documentary can create emotional and empathic presence, not unlike one often found in fiction – and when documentaries employ reconstructions, they make use of the fiction film's means. Also, no documentary gives a completely unprocessed rendition of reality.

The murders in Congo uses the narrative approach of the feature film to create a partly subjective retelling of main character Joshua French's experiences in the Congo. The film, which, in my view, was unjustly harmed by a number of Norwegian critics, provides an interesting insight into the psychology of the two murdered Norwegians. The production is obviously colored by how the filmmakers interpret them, but are far from a classic hero portrayal. With a structure reminiscent of the Kurosawa classic Rashomon (1950), the movie reproduces three different versions of the murder på driver Abedi Kasongo. With this, it justifies its use of the means of fiction, precisely because it discusses a case in which different variants of «truth». Holst's film does not present a clear answer to the controversy «crime riddle» – but it also has in common with many «true crime»documentaries.


Using the film's grip to create empathy seems to have been a key motivation for Poppes Utøya 22. juli, which is a fictional account of how the attack on Utøya is experienced for a bunch of fictional characters. Here one has chosen to depict only the events on Utøya from the victims' perspective, with the perpetrator barely visible in the picture. To this it can be objected that we also need to talk about him who was behind the attack to understand the various factors that shaped and motivated him. The film's main concern, however, is to create an understanding of how it was felt to be affected by this terror, and with this, the choice of narrative perspective is appropriate. With an action that takes place in real time with no visible clips, provides Utøya 22. juli a disturbing and very unpleasant glimpse into the events at Utøya, almost like a first-person account.

Did we need to watch a feature film to understand how cruel it was on Utøya?

Several survivors must have expressed gratitude for the film being made, as it has made it less necessary for them to try to explain what they have been through. And perhaps there was a need for a reminder of the sheer and cutest cruelty of what was happening, at a time when the mindset that was the cause of the terror seems to be spreading. At the same time, there is something compelling about this: Did we really need to watch a feature film to understand how cruel it was on Utøya?

Wider perspective

The island 22. July Director Erik Poppe

Utøya 22. juli in no way tells the whole story of the terrorist attack, but was possibly a necessary and appropriate starting point for the cinematic exploration of what happened. Here's how Paul Greengrass' film works as a supplement: July 22 is a more sober retelling of the actual course of events, with just as much emphasis on the legal and emotional after games of the terrorist attack. With an expanded perspective, this feature film is paradoxically more vulnerable than Poppe's film for the criticism that is usually directed at films based on real events: that essential elements have been omitted, and that in dramatization one has compressed and redefined other courses. Like most adaptations, Greengrass' film does not embrace as much as its literary submission. But the director has just as well found a well-balanced balance between reconstruction, political agitation and genuinely moving drama, in a film that is primarily intended as a warning against the attitudes of the perpetrator.

The film medium has a unique potential to evoke feelings in the audience, and it is both healthy and right to meet feature films «based on real events» with some skepticism. Especially should they are considered interpretations rather than journalistic sources of intelligence. The terrorist attack 22. July is of course a particularly inflamed theme – it is a national trauma that is much closer in time than, for example, the Second World War. But there is little reason to believe that filmmakers will stop being inspired by real-life stories. And it is also not desirable that they should failing to comment on his contemporaries.


Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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