“I think the words that we use are very important. Quite a lot of studies on the Capitol [attack], on 9/11, and on July 22 [in Norway] really illustrate that. I know that people have been working on how violence in the US tends to be described; you don’t have school shooters, for example, described as terrorists, as long as they are white. If something is done by a Muslim person, the word ‘terrorism’ is far more easily used, as we can see in media studies.”
Interview by Heidi Hart
July 22, 2011 is a date Norwegians and many others around the world will not forget. Right-wing adherent Anders Behring Breivik carried out two politically motivated attacks, a bombing near the government centre in Oslo and a mass shooting of participants in a Workers Youth League (AUF) summer camp, located on a lake island northwest of the city. These two acts of violence killed 77 people and injured over 300. Professor Anne Gjelsvik’s new book, Bearbeidelser. 22.juli i ord og bilder (Adaptations: 22 July in Words and Images, Universitetsforlaget, 2020, available in Norwegian), gathers and reflects on a variety of responses to the attacks, from music and poems to portrayals in visual art, film, and theatre. In this interview with ECPS, Prof. Gjelsvik describes some of these memorial adaptations and discusses ongoing controversies around far-right ideology, cultural populism, and terrorism.
Arguing that one topic that’s really, really important to someone can lead to extremism, Professor Gjelsvik said that actual violent attacks have been fewer, so [right-wing groups] tend to do other things. “They tend to infiltrate public debate; they try, or instance, to get left-wing politicians to silence them, by threatening them online and so on. And so, it’s moved from the explicit violence, but it’s evident that there are a lot of right-wing extremists out there doing what they can do to threaten the democracy in Norway,” she said.
The following are excerpts from the interview lightly edited for clarity and length.
Can I ask you first of all to introduce yourself and say a little bit about your work and how you started working with film, violence, and political movements around the world?
Yes, my name is Anne Gjelsvik, and I am a Professor of Film Studies at the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. I’ve done quite a lot of work on violence and issues related to violence, particularly in cinema but also in media in a broader sense. This was actually triggered by one question, in the 1990s, the question of what violence in cinema meant.
In Norway this peaked, with quite a big debate, when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers came to the cinema. I became interested in film reviewing and noticed that reviewers tended to be very positive toward Tarantino’s film, whereas in relation to Stone’s film, they were much more reluctant to say that this was a good movie … The first thing I decided to do was a study of film reviewers and how they responded to violence in film, when they thought it was a problem, when they thought it was valuable in a film. Sometimes they do; for example, in relation to David Lynch’s films, they would say, “It’s art, it’s valuable.”
So, this is how my interest was triggered, that sometimes we think about [violence] as a problem, and sometimes we think about it as something that needs to be there. This led to my Ph.D., which was on popular American cinema containing violence. My research from then on has been about the relationship between film and society, I would say, and the issue of violence has been a recurring topic in different ways.
“We’re Not As United As People Thought in the Beginning”
Thank you. That helps me with a little background. So, this is the 10-year anniversary of the massacre in and around Oslo, Norway, perpetrated by a right-wing adherent. You’ve just edited a book on artistic and literary responses to the 2011 attacks. Can you talk about the different modes of responding and how effective they’ve been in helping the country to heal?
The book project is the direct result of a big research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council. It started out by looking at media responses, and it became quite evident to me that the terror attacks had been treated in many different ways throughout these ten years, or the nine years when we were working on the book. These [responses] served very different purposes, and they also have been treated very differently. That was what we wanted to find out by collaborating between fields within the humanities, from literature to art and music and theatre studies, as well as film and media studies, which is what my group is working on. And what we see is that at the beginning, Norway [focused on] memorial events or gatherings, where music was particularly important.
We saw that from the beginning, music was used as a way of comforting, an artistic means to bring people together. We also saw that writers were very early in addressing this trauma, [as] they reached out to write mostly poems and short stories that were trying to grasp what happened. Later on, we have had other art forms such as film, which have been way more controversial.
In order to bridge the whole period, I would say that in the beginning, art was seen as something that could bring all of Norway together, and process the event, whereas today it’s a bit more complicated and a bit more controversial, because there are different pulls in different directions, and it’s more evident that we’re not as united as people thought in the beginning. It’s very notable in Norway … that we would have what we call rose parades, in the first week after the attacks, where people came together, bringing roses, marching in the streets, and then gathering with music being performed. Nowadays, people would say, “What about all those people who didn’t show up for those events?”
That’s a good question, always the question of who’s excluded, or who chooses not to participate. Can you discuss the more controversial memorials and other responses to the massacre? There’s a “Memory Wound” project that I think has been suspended, if that’s correct – an environmental intervention, and then some theatrical portrayals of the perpetrator that have also been controversial.
I would say that these are two instances where the art, or artistic treatments of the terror attacks, becomes controversial. One issue is art that is in the public square … a memorial, or artwork that you can’t choose to ignore, because it’s in your working place, for instance. The question about the public memorials has been controversial, and then when it comes to topics, it’s the question about the perpetrator, or the terrorist.
To take the first [question], the Norwegian government decided that they wanted a national memorial, early on, only a few months after the attacks. They put up a competition, and the Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg won the competition with his work “Memorial Wound.” There were two attacks, one in Oslo, at the government headquarters, and one at Utøya, which is an island in a lake. This memorial was planned to be on the land side, not on the island, and what happened was that some of the neighbors were very reluctant to have this kind of memorial in their neighborhood, in part because they didn’t want the visitors, and in part because they thought that the art that they chose was so brutal. It is a wound in the landscape, as you say, it’s a cut. Some wanted something else, and some wanted it away from where they live. In the end [the government] chose to not only postpone it but terminate the contract with the artist.
Now they have started working on a more comforting, more traditional memorial, which is still in the making because of the controversies with the neighbors. It was put on hold, and they won’t make it to the tenth anniversary as they’d planned to, but it will be there. This really illuminates that it’s not everyone who wants to remember; it could be because they have this as a traumatic experience themselves, it could be political issues, but it could be related to what art can do in a public environment.
So, that has been very controversial and disturbing in many ways, and then we have the issue of how to portray the perpetrator, which has also been very challenging. We’ve had a couple of theatre performances where this was really, really controversial. We have that issue in the depiction of him in the newspapers, and we have that as a challenge when it comes to the films that have been made. None of the Norwegian films have actually portrayed him at all. The only cinematic representation of July 22 in which he is actually portrayed is the Paul Greengrass Netflix production, whereas the Norwegian productions emphasize the victims and the survivors. This is really hard to handle, still, after ten years: how to deal with him, how to think about his background, his reasons for doing this. Was he insane, was it political … all of this is very controversial.
Because you’ve written quite a bit about this, what about films that portray violent events? It’s a very difficult thing to do. Erik Poppe’s July 22 film uses one long take to portray the [Utøya] massacre, in contrast to the Netflix version, which has very quick edits, is very fast moving. How do these films work? I’m wondering, is it possible for these films to work in a critical way, without just providing entertainment?
That’s a good question, and it’s actually difficult to say something that [applies] as a general rule. Erik Poppe’s film is only situated at Utøya, at the youth camp, where as many as 69 people were shot and killed during that attack. A lot of people in Norway were very worried about what kind of movie could this turn out to be – it would brutal and horrible to watch. But in the end, when the film premiered in Norway, it got really good reviews, and it’s been very well received in Norway. What I think Poppe did, which is good, is that he doesn’t really exploit the violence. The violence is there, but a lot of it takes place outside the camera, offscreen. What he’s trying to portray is the experience of being there. The young people who were there, many of them didn’t actually see that much violence, they were hiding, they tried to escape. So, it’s that kind of experience that he tries to portray. And he wanted to do this, because he felt that too little attention was given to the victims and the survivors.
You really have to have a lot of courage and good preparation to be able to pull that off, and I think he does it in an ethical, satisfactory way. It doesn’t feel exploitative to me. But then I also know that if you don’t really know the event, you don’t have all the information about what happened, and the trial afterwards, and the political debate, and so on, then it feels more exploitative. I’ve looked into the German reception, for instance, and for them it was more of an experience of the violence, and too little of the context, which is what Paul Greengrass tries to add, by getting the terrorist to talk about his idea, and so on. So, it is a tricky field. I think Erik Poppe’s film works in Norway, because Norwegians know the context, but it doesn’t necessarily travel that well, in order to tell the context and the reasons why this happened. It was a political attack, and that doesn’t really show in the film.
“Today, There Are More Instances of Right-wing Opinions and Propaganda in the Public Square”
Thank you, that’s what I wondered about, reception in different places and audience reactions. To broaden our questions a little bit here, in the past ten years since this event, what changes have you observed in far-right populist movements in Scandinavia?
As a matter of fact, I was actually at a seminar, my first in-person seminar during the pandemic, in Oslo last week. It was hosted by a center that does research on right-wing extremism, called C-REX [Center for Research on Extremism] at University of Oslo. [Based on] the research they presented, I think it’s fair to say that in the public debate in Norway, we can see that today there are more instances of right-wing opinions and propaganda in the public square, more than we were used to. A lot of people would say that things that Anders Behring Breivik put in his manifest ten years ago, which were then seen as really extreme, you can now find in debates on Facebook, etc. So, the [dark] web is not the only place where you find it.
When it comes to the climate of debates and opinions, Norway has turned more toward right-wing development than before. But when it comes to the more explicit extremist behavior, that is less of an issue. For instance, the group SIAN [Stop the Islamization of Norway], which is really right-wing, is coming to Trondheim next week, actually, to have a demonstration. They are allowed to do that, because freedom of speech makes it possible for them to demonstrate. But, these kind of events don’t gather a large group. So, if we talk about that kind of development, it hasn’t increased, but the mainstreaming of extreme attitudes, that has developed toward a worse situation.
That’s helpful, and it’s similar to what’s been happening in the US, where things like nooses left in trees in public places, and swastikas left on synagogues, that’s become more common, unfortunately, as well as Facebook debates and all the things you’re describing.
I can also add that what the C-Rex research showed is that actual violent attacks have been fewer, so [right-wing groups] tend to do other things. They tend to infiltrate public debate; they try, or instance, to get left-wing politicians to silence them, by threatening them online and so on. And so, it’s moved from the explicit violence, but it’s evident that there are a lot of right-wing extremists out there doing what they can do to threaten the democracy in Norway.
That makes sense, thank you. I’m going to move into the topic of ecofascism, which has been the subject of some of our commentaries here. The “deep ecology” movement has roots in Norway – I’m thinking of the writings of Arne Næss and similar thinkers – and now has problematic links to ecofascism [and also “ecoterrorism” from either side of the political spectrum]. What is your sense of how violence “for” nature plays out in popular culture?
I know that you have also been intrigued by the Icelandic film Woman at War. I’ve been teaching that film, and when I describe for the students that Halla, an activist in Iceland, is portrayed as a terrorist, the students say, “No, no no,” they don’t see her that way. They don’t make that connection, which I find very interesting. It’s not a big topic in Norwegian popular culture, at least, but we can see that this influences the public debate to some extent. Recently, we had activists who forced themselves into pig farms and took pictures that they have been sharing to the news media. This has really generated a big debate about how animals are treated in Norwegian farming, whereas Norwegian farming has sold itself as something other than the animal industry that we know from abroad. “Buy Norwegian food,” you know, “it’s safe.” And then you’ve got these pictures from these farms showing that the pigs didn’t have an ethical environment to live in at all.
Another interesting thing is Viking re-enactment culture. We’ve been writing here about cultural populism, and this valorization of nature, getting back to the earth through Stone Age and Viking traditions. You mentioned to me a few months ago a young blogger who has been involved in the Viking re-enactment culture and has started to question it. Could you say something about that?
There have been a lot of Norwegians who have been intrigued by their heritage from the Viking era. That could be crafts, that could be costumes, that could be re-enactments, and so on. But what we have seen is that this has become way more offensive for some people, and we also see that those who are interested in Viking traditions sort of take over what has been an interest for people who don’t have the right-wing attitude that goes with some of these groups. So, there was this Norwegian [blogger], now she’s working in film, but she used to do LARPs [Live Action Role Play], talks, walks, and workshops with the Viking tradition. She got more and more online harassment from these groups, so she actually decided to step down from sharing the traditional work that she had been doing, because of this harassment, by groups that have sort of taken over the Viking tradition.
Outside of Europe, too, deep ecology and close-to-nature sentiment has traction on the right and on the left, for example the YPJ militia group fighting against the Syrian government. How do you see this playing out beyond Europe?
This is out of my territory in a way, but we can see that these groups and this way of thinking encourages people who are opposed to government and opposed to authority. You see how these ideas can travel from right-wing to left-wing. You can be on one side then change in ways that don’t really make sense, in terms of the topics or the issues, because the same elements get triggered. One topic that’s really, really important to someone can lead to extremism.
“School Shooters Are Not Described As Terrorists, As Long As They Are White”
We see this crossover in the US, too, for example in organic food culture. I think of this as a sort of purity culture, too, that can cross those political lines. I want to come back to the word “terrorism,” though, because after the January 6 insurrection in the US, there was a debate on the left about how to use that word. Some people were saying, “We need to call this what it is, and call it domestic terrorism,” and others were saying, “No, that word has racist implications after 9/11, in the way Muslims were demonized.” So, I wonder if you’ve found any challenges in using the word “terrorism,” in the Scandinavian context.
I think the words that we use are very important. Quite a lot of studies on the Capitol [attack], on 9/11, and on July 22 [in Norway] really illustrate that. I know that people have been working on how violence in the US tends to be described; you don’t have school shooters, for example, described as terrorists, as long as they are white. If something is done by a Muslim person, the word “terrorism” is far more easily used, as we can see in media studies. We’ve also seen this in Norway, in relation to July 22, in the question of whether this was something done for political reasons. If the shooter in these attacks is, for instance, in a shopping mall, if you determine it to be due to illness, then you would describe it as something else … In Norway, the issue of whether this is a political attack, which is what terrorism is, has been downplayed in some environments.
Today the AUF [youth wing of the Labour Party] has really put on the agenda that we need to describe what happened on July 22 as terrorism, and the perpetrator as a terrorist, and don’t describe it as an “event” or just as a “shooting.” They really stress the importance of using that word today. I think in Norway most people today would agree that we describe this as terrorism. A lot of people would also be eager to say that this is what happened in January in the US, seen from our perspective with our experience here, that it’s clearly political violence with the clear intention to get a lot of attention. From my perspective, I wouldn’t be reluctant to call that terrorism at all.
Thank you, that’s very clear. Now to move to a topic related to terrorism, especially with regard to the right-wing attacks we see in the US, you’ve also co-written a book on gender in Game of Thrones. In light of growing concerns about violence against women, especially since domestic violence is an indicator in those who commit mass shootings, how do you see the intense onscreen portrayals in this series? I’ve just read a think piece on this that takes the “blame the media” route, but that may be a bit too easy. What are your thoughts on that?
We also saw this with Anders Behring Breivik, that this is clearly an issue of what he thinks about gender as well, and it’s something we see with a lot of violent attacks. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an attack on women but [could result from] an influence on the whole attitude. The book that I co-edited with Rikke Schubart, Women of Ice and Fire [Bloomsbury, 2016], had a starting point exactly because Game of Thrones was mostly seen as a feminist show, with strong women, and that this was really popular culture at its best, where you see women having different roles than we are used to: they could be the queen, or a knight, with different ways of portraying all types of gender roles. But in my work, I was particularly concerned with the actual violence that I saw onscreen, where rape scenes and violence against women changed from book to screen.
It is difficult to say how this influences the audience, and it’s really complicated to find causal connections. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying, “This one show creates violence against women.” But I think if you broaden the perspective, you can actually say something about how HBO portrays violence, how they tend to have violence towards women, and how crime fiction tends to have a lot of dead young women. It’s hard for me, who has put so much time into researching film and television and media, to think that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t have a role. I don’t think it’s a one-to-one thing, that you see a film and then get violent, but it does influence how we think about violence, and how we think about gender roles, for sure. I think it is a complicated mix, and it does play a part.
Thank you, this is helpful. One final question: I know you’ve also worked with environmental media, for example climate-crisis films. Where is your work going in that direction now and in the next few years?
As we’re wrapping up the project on terrorism, I’m thinking about what’s next. I’m part of an environmental humanities group at NTNU, and one thing that we see is that Norwegian popular culture has been a bit slow. We don’t have a lot of Norwegian films on climate change, for instance. But we have noticed that there are quite a lot of films about oil [coming out] in the next couple of years, a big disaster movie about the oil platforms in the North Sea, for instance, so I’m looking into that as a possible topic for research.
As you know, Norway is very dependent on the oil industry, so “the green shift,” as we call it, or “grønne skiftet,” is really, really challenging in terms of politics now: when should we stop making oil, how can we make a transition, and what should Norway live on in the future? So, it’s a big topic, and it’s very interesting to see so many films and television series coming up in the next few years.
Another thing I’ve seen, in Norwegian documentaries, is related to one of the issues that you brought up earlier, the more nostalgic [approach], with a lot of documentaries looking into the traditional ways of living, particularly in the western part of Norway. This also intrigues me, to think about what kind of portrayals of Norway are happening now, and what kind of “man and nature” relationship these documentaries are showing.
Thank you so much, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in that direction.
Who is Anne Gjelsvik?
Anne Gjelsvik, Professor of film studies at the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway. She has published on different topics within film studies and is currently working on media and terrorism and cinematic representations of the Anthropocene. She is currently the project leader for “Face of Terror. Understanding Terrorism from the Perspective of Critical Media Aesthetics.” (2016-2021), funded by the Research Council of Norway. She is member of Environmental Humanities research group at NTNU.
She has published several books both in English and Norwegian, as well as a large number of articles in journals and anthologies. Her latest book is Bearbeidelser. 22.juli i ord og bilder (in Norwegian. Universitetsforlaget, 2020) which features art and articles about the artistic treatments of the Norwegian terror attacks in 2011.
Among her publications are Cinema Between Media (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) Co-written with Jørgen Bruhn, Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones and Multiple Media Engagements (co-edited with Rikke Schubart, forthcoming on Bloomsbury 2016), Hva er film (What is Cinema) (Universitetsforlaget, 2013), and the co-edited anthologies Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. An Critical Engagement With Flags of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima(Columbia University Press, 2013) and Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions (Bloomsbury, 2013).