Survivors to Recreate Norway's Worst Mass Shooting in New Documentary

Courtesy of Vilda Bomben Film

Five years ago today, a gunman killed 69 people at an island summer camp, the worst massacre in Norway since WWII.

Five years ago today, on July 22, 2011, a gunman, dressed as a policeman, docked on Utoya, an island a half-hour's drive North-West of the Norwegian capital of Oslo. The island was full of summer campers —members of the young Labour Party on their annual retreat. The gunman began shooting. In 77 minutes he killed 69 people.

The Utoya Massacre has been called Norway's 9/11, a violent event so traumatic it has scarred the entire society. It is estimated one in four Norwegians knew someone affected by the attacks.

As Norway, and the world, today commemorates the Utoya tragedy, documentary filmmakers from the region are finalizing plans for a film — Reconstructing Utoya— that would recreate the July 22 massacre, with the help of survivors of the original attack.

“When this thing happened, the focus was almost entirely on the perpetrator, as it is always in these kinds of attacks, whether in Utoya or in recent attacks in Nice or Florida,” says Fredrik Lange, who is producing the film and co-wrote the script with director Carl Javer. “That's understandable but after a while we have to question that, and this film is about telling the real story, which is the story of the survivors, not the story of the killer.”

Javer compares the approach to that of filmmakers dealing with the Holocaust. “It took a long, long time to turn the perspective away from the perpetrators to where it belongs, with the victims.”

Lange and Javer's Vilda Bomben production company is producing Reconstructing Utoya together with John Arvid Berger of Norway's JabFilm and Helle Faber for Denmark's Made in Copenhagen. The documentary has received backing from the Swedish and Danish film institutes as well as regional subsidy backing in Norway and financing from public broadcasters in all three countries.

Norway's Tour de Force, Folkets Bio in Sweden and Doxbio in Denmark, all specialist theatrical distributors, have pre-bought the film for their respective territories. Cinephil is handling worldwide sales. Other investors include FilmCamp and Film Vast . The filmmakers are waiting on the final piece of funding from the Norwegian film institute, which is expected to make its decision by the end of the summer.

Anders Behring Breivik, the Utoya gunman, who is currently serving a life sentence in Norway, will not appear in the film. Instead, survivors will direct actors to recreate the events of July 22 from their perspective. The documentary will not be filmed on Utoya but recreated on a soundstage in FilmCamp in Bardufoss, in the north of the country.

Taking a page from Lars von Trier's 2003 drama Dogville, the reconstruction of the attacks will not be realistic but be done on a bare stage, with chalk outlines indicating buildings and structures on the island.

“The event is still shocking, people here are still in shock,” says Javer. “By placing it somewhere far away and making it deliberately non-realistic, it makes it easier for survivors to tell their story and for the audience to take it in.”

The filmmakers are working closely with the survivors' support group in the making of the film and will have a trauma specialist on set at all times.

In addition to the reconstructions of the massacre itself, the filmmakers plan to shoot the interactions between the survivors and the young actors playing them. Javer says the final film will be as much about “the process of dealing with the trauma” of Utoya as about the massacre itself.

“It was, it is, a national trauma and with hugely traumatic events we, as humans, tend to encapsulate those moments, to push them away from us, it's a normal, psycological reaction,” the director says. “But if we can work at it, embrace the trauma and the memory, than as a nation, and as people individually, we can start to heal.”

And while recent attacks in Nice or Orlando show how the tragedy of Utoya is far from unique, the filmmakers believe Norway has something to teach the world when it comes to reacting to such violent attacks.

“Norway's response: it wasn't vengeful, the attacks weren't used to score political points,” says Lange. “Instead it was very democratic, very transparent and very humane. It's truly inspiring.”