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2018 Berlin Film Festival Review: Eric Poppe’s haunting and audacious ‘U – JULY 22’

Synopsis: On July 22, 2011, a right-wing extremist murdered over 77 young men and woman on Utoya island in Norway. This is a re-telling of this deadly attack.

Few films immerse audiences into such a singular, haunting experience as U- July 22. While several films can engage audiences and hold their attention throughout, Eric Poppe goes beyond the captivating and delivers real and atmospheric immersion and recreates what it is like to be chased, frightened and clinging to life for an entire 72 minutes, the real duration of the attack.

Kicking off with brief documentary footage of the first attack in Oslo, led by the same right-wing extremist who then moves to the island to execute his much deadlier operation, U – JULY 22 is filmed in one single take. In Utoya, a beautiful island where youth camps take place in hopes of escaping the bustling city life and serving as some sort of retreat or escapism, a large youth gathering of over 400 young men and women is taking place on July 22, 2011. The campers have heard about the Oslo shooting but are resuming their day normally until the first gun shot is heard. A long chase pursues, a chase for life, hope and survival.

Sharing some common stylistic narrative and executional devices with Hungary’s SON OF SAUL, U – JULY 22 excels in focusing on the experience, instead of veering into sappy or sentimental depictions. As soon as the shootings begin, the audience sees what’s unfolding on the screen in the eye of the victims. And like most real mass shooting incidents, victims do not know much about each other – not where they come from, nor why are sharing the same place – and perhaps even sharing the same fate. All they know is the fear, the hope of living and the will to escape the trauma. And that’s what Poppe does here – we never know much of the young men and woman about to lose their lives. All we know is what we see in their eyes, wounds and shaken voices.

This explains why the film’s characterization is intentionally thin. We know little of the main lead, a wonderful Andrea Berntzen who plays 19-year-old Kaja, but is clear that Poppe focuses on her most important trait: resilience. Rather than making her merely traumaitized, Poppe depicts her strength to search for her sister, Emilia, who was with her in the camp but had stayed back in the tents in an area close to where the shootings begin. Kaja is also admirably proactive and selfless in aiding other victims along the way and does not succumb to being paralyzed by fear, she choses to go on. Her motives are simple and Poppe chooses not to give her a meaty backstory perhaps for the sake of not being exploitative or drift away from the main focus: the experience as it happened.

A magnificent technical achievement, the film’s single take approach is highly successful here in conveying the endless 72 minutes which the real 2011 victims experienced until the authorities came for their rescue. These haunting 72 minutes are captured entirely with hand-held camera and a single take that transfixed the audience into the heart of the trauma. Much more than a mere exercise in style or a gimmick, the single take approach delivers a haunting experience that, while being fictionalized, is very close to the real experiences the victims went through, as the film’s final credit point out.

Poppe stays away from typical exaggerative styles that trauma films sometimes resort to: we never see the actual shooter, nor do we see the characters finding a sentimental resolution to their trauma. It’s a harsh approach but it works largely due to its audacious execution and realism. Particularly noteworthy, and superbly contributing to the film’s haunting experience, is the sound editing. The shots are placed effectively and are dealt with smartly, as they become a real character in the film. Close or far, loud or faint, the shots without a shooter further expand the fear and shock and deliver a sensory and unforgettable experience. Performances are also superb, especially that they were captured in a single take. Poppe delivers some light moments here in there, but not just to break away from the film’s singular mood, but to demonstrate a bit of hopefulness in the middle of the chaos.

Verdict: A singular, haunting experience that makes its audience far more than mere spectators, U – JULY 22 is a technical achievement and a film that does not seek to please its viewers nor make them weep. Its sole purpose, and one that it delivers marvelously, is to create an unsentimental atmosphere where fear and hope are at odds. And it’s a risk that pays off.

Grade: A –

Mina Takla

Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written from over 10 film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.

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