Hot Docs review: Generation Utøya (Sigve Endresen & Aslaug Holm)

Generation Utøya, directed by Sigve Endresen and Aslaug Holm, begins as a documentary about Norway’s Workers’ Youth League members, four women who survived the terror attacks on Utøya Island by far-right extremist Anders Breivik. There is, however, a second film underneath its main storyline, one about the rise of neofascism and alt-right policies seen through the eyes of the aforementioned survivors, and how history is bound to repeat itself.

On the surface we follow the steps of different survivors in order to get a bigger picture of how trauma, even when the cause is shared, affects people differently: two of the women followed by Endresen and Holm are still engaging in politics, whereas another one is dealing with the anxiety and depression linked to her survivor’s guilt. They are left with physical and psychological scars and ten years later the pain is still there, because as seen in the more interesting second narrative, the same extremism that cost their friends’ lives and almost took their own is still going strong, with the internet as a fertile ground for it to flourish.

What makes Generation Utøya great is the directors’ ability to highlight how different scenarios such as the Utøya Island attack, the attack against a Mosque (also in Norway), or the constant death threats sent to the survivors who are still engaging in progressive politics actually have a lot in common. More than that, how far-right extremism gained space online because it works actively to blur the line of what freedom of speech actually means, and where a lot of discrimination is understood as virtual trolling, not something to be taken seriously.

For the film, however, the reason why we so easily engage in such justifications is not only because we are completely and easily manipulated; confronting a terrorist, especially a right-wing, Christian one, who justified his actions in the name of a purity that never existed, would also mean confronting people we know and love. Their so-called ‘twisted’ ideas, and what makes them a ‘controversial’ person. The internet in this sense created a snake that eats its own tail. The noise from social media now reaches parliaments, and what was once seen as trolling may be turned into law. Moreover, even prior to the public manifestation of such noise online, these ideas and hateful comments appeared inside inner circles and family groups.

Thus Generation Utøya asks us a tough question: are we ready to understand that some people in our lives may share the same ideals with a man who shot and killed over 60 young people for their political beliefs? Are we ready to acknowledge that people are equally capable of bad and good and from that understanding, start working our way toward correcting our wrongs? Are we willing to see ourselves as part of the problem and engage in changing this scenario any way we can? Instead of answering those questions, the film ends with its main subjects continuing their lives and their daily struggles, for there is nothing else one can do but keep on going. To be alive is in itself an act of resistance, and no person or action is too small. Generation Utøya is an alarming film, and above all an extremely relevant one.

Generation Utoya (Sigve Endresen and Aslaug Holm)