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Real-life terror: is it exploitative to use human suffering for cinematic thrills?

This year sees the release of two films based on the Utya island attack but what can a film based on real events tell us that documentary footage or eyewitness testimony cannot?

The question of how to approach human suffering on camera has confounded film-makers for decades. Theres no blueprint when it comes to turning news stories into cinema, and while the likes of Schindlers List and 12 Years a Slave have been praised for providing insight into historical atrocities, in recent years, attention has turned to events that are fresh in our collective memory.

In many cases, this means acts of terrorism. The events of 9/11 became the narrative of United 93 and World Trade Center in 2006, while the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing inspired Patriots Day (2016) and Stronger (2017). Its human nature to want to make order out of chaos, and these films speak to a collective yearning for answers and understanding in the aftermath of tragedy. Yet the question remains: are films based on real-life terrorist attacks opportunistic?

This year sees the release of two films which centre on the 2011 attack in Norway by rightwing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, which left 77 people dead, 55 of whom were teenagers. Erik Poppes UtyaJuly 22 debuted at the Berlin film festival in February, while Paul Greengrasss 22 July will be screened at the Venice film festival this week. Poppe worked closely with survivors from Utya island, using their testimonies to create a real-time, single-take thriller in which Breivik is a shadowy figure in the films periphery. Meanwhile, Greengrasss film focuses only in part on Breiviks actions, with most of his attention dedicated to the aftermath, including coverage of the trial of Breivik, the response from Norways prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, and the difficult recovery of one Utya survivor, 18-year-old Viljar Hanssen.

Utya July 22 trailer

As writer and philosopher Susan Sontag stated in her 2003 essay Regarding the Pain of Others, One can feel obliged to look at photographs that record great cruelties and crimes. One should feel obliged to think about what it means to look at them, about the capacity actually to assimilate what they show. We could see these films in a similar manner to watch them is to view the real-life events at a distance, but to be jolted by our voyeurism. The events of 22 July 2011 will still be fresh in the memory of many, given the media coverage that surrounded both the attack and Breiviks trial.

Internet access has created an inescapable news cycle, and for many, particularly those living in Europe, the Norway attack was a particularly shocking incident. It has taken seven years for these twin feature films to materialise, which could be seen as a cynical attempt at turning human suffering into box office returns. Questions arise around the ethics of this particular docudrama style of film-making what can a film based on real events tell us that documentary footage or eyewitness testimony cannot?

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Daniel Sauli and David Alan Basche in United 93. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library

The attraction of docudramas is that, more often than not, we [the target audience] are aware of the story, says Dr Beln Vidal, senior lecturer in film studies at Kings College London. Fiction is not the opposite of fact. The moment in which facts begin to circulate they are already turned into narrative, whether as news reports or amateur video uploaded onto YouTube. We make sense of events through storytelling.

Certainly narratives do not exist in cinema alone from verbal accounts to written articles, they are our way of absorbing and processing information. What we choose to include and exclude, even in something as simple as an anecdote we recount to our friends, is important and in the case of Poppe and Greengrass, every narrative decision impacts the authenticity of their films.

It is up to viewers to digest and question these decisions, and indeed the nature of docudrama as an art form. Graphic violence is often seen as a mainstay of pop culture, but there is a fine line between authenticity and gratuitousness when it comes to docudrama. The best docudramas engage in a quest for understanding: on a experiential level, on a social level, on a political level too, says Vidal. They are indicative of how a society or nation works through trauma. Their potential value resides in that they express a point of view.

We might view these films then as social documents intended to aid our collective understanding, not only of human nature and society, but of narrative art itself. The stories we tell ourselves are a sort of armour against future anguish a form of collective memory, by which we process what we struggle most to understand. But film-makers must exercise caution when treading this delicate ground, its not enough to have noble intentions. In making sense of human cruelty, these films should seek to say something more than simply recalling newsreels, lest docudramas become ghoulish spectacles of suffering.

22 July is released in the US on 10 October, and UtyaJuly 22 is released in the UK on 26 October.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/sep/03/real-life-terror-is-it-exploitative-to-use-human-suffering-for-cinematic-thrills

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