Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Reconstructing Utoya' Re-creates Tragedy to Find Closure

Courtesy of Berlinale
Survivors of the Utoya massacre worked with teen volunteers to block out scenes that re-created their experiences.

After two fictional takes on the 2011 terrorist attack that killed 69 people in Norway ('22 July' and 'Utoya — July 22'), a brave new documentary lets the survivors tell their stories in their own way.

One of the most powerful moments in Reconstructing Utoya, a new documentary about the deadly Norwegian terror attacks of July 22, 2011, comes near the end. Torje Hansen, a survivor of the attack — in which a ultra-right-wing terrorist gunned down 69 people, mostly teenagers, at a Labour Party summer camp — is blocking out a scene with the young actors who will play him and his older brother at the moment when his brother was shot.

“You get hit. You fall down,” Torje explains to the boy who will play his brother. He demonstrates, tumbling to the floor. “You get up. You are shot again. You get up again. Then you are shot in the head.”

When Torje says “Action!,” the actors play out the scene as he looks on, waiting to give the signal to a boy tapping a pipe to indicate the gunshots. Shot. Pause. Shot. Pause. Shot. Shot. “OK, that was good,” says Torje. “Let’s do it again.”

The story of the killings on July 22, 2011, has already been told on film — twice. Erik Poppe turned the incident into his real-time horror movie Utoya — July 22, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year. Paul Greengrass gave the Norwegian massacre the Hollywood treatment with his English-language Netflix drama 22 July. Reconstructing Utoya is different. Begun before both the Greengrass and Poppe films, the documentary, from director Carl Javer and producer Fredrik Lange, aims to be both historic document and cinematic therapy session: a way for the survivors of Utoya and the traumatized nation of Norway —it’s been estimated that one in four Norwegians knew someone affected by the attacks — to process what happened.

“To leave this trauma behind, the event has to be remembered somehow,” says Lange. “It was important for us that it be remembered correctly, by the people who experienced it.”

Four survivors — Jenny, Mohammed, Johanne and Torje — who contacted the filmmakers via a support group, are the real directors of Reconstructing Utoya. They block the scenes using gaffing tape to trace the outlines of buildings and structures on the island, and work with the actors — a group of semi-professional teen volunteers — deciding who will play each role, including themselves, in their reconstructions.

“Each of them has found a different way of dealing with the event,” says Lange. “Mohammed had a close friend who died, so he has a lot of guilt and told his story in a way that closely related to that of his friend. Jenny has worked very hard to be strong and look at her story in a straightforward, rational way.”

With Reconstructing Utoya, the survivors’ reality — their memories and trauma but also their hope for the future — is all there to be read on their four faces. “I thought you might like to know,” says Torje after telling his story. And he smiles.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 7 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.