As It Happens

They survived a mass shooting meant to silence them. But these Norwegian women are louder than ever

The documentary film Generation Utoya follows four young women who survived a politically motivated mass shooting in Norway in 2011. But instead of retreating from the public sphere, they've become more politically active than ever.

Hot Docs film Generation Utoya follows the political careers of 4 survivors of the 2011 Norway attacks

Generation Utoya follows the lives and careers of four survivors of the 2011 mass shooting in Norway. From left to right: Kamzy Gunaratnam, Ina Libak, Renate Tarnes, and Line Hoem. (Aslaug Holm/Fenris Film)

Story Transcript

Kamzy Gunaratnam's parents didn't want her to get involved in politics.

She was 23 when she headed off to a summer camp with the youth branch of Norway's Labour party 10 years ago. Her parents, Tamil refugees who fled persecution in Sri Lanka, warned her the political sphere was unsafe and she'd be better off keeping her head down.

"I tried to prove to them that politics in Norway is different. Like, it's safe. You don't get killed to engage. You don't get killed to have an opinion in this country," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"But this happened."

On July 22, 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik infiltrated the camp on Utoya Island and opened fire, killing 69 people, the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in modern history. He killed eight others in a car bomb that same day. 

The documentary film Generation Utoya follows Gunaratnam and three other women who survived the shooting. Instead of retreating from the public sphere, they've become more politically active than ever — dedicating their lives to building a better Norway where nobody else has to go through what they did.

Generation Utoya is streaming now at the Toronto Hot Docs online film festival until May 9.

The film follows the lives of Gunaratnam, now the deputy mayor of Oslo; Renate Tarnes, who is working to reclaim Utoya Island as a centre of free speech and democracy; Ina Libak, a climate activist and politician who fights for humane refugee policies; and Line Hoem, a social worker and former deputy mayor of Kristiansund.

Aslaug Holm, who directed the film alongside Sigve Endresen, told Off she was blown away by the incredible strength the women have shown in the face of unimaginable trauma. 

"When I was filming those young and brave characters, I saw the heavy burden and saw how difficult it was every day to just rise up and go out and be brave and fight for our values," Holm said. 

"I felt this light is in a way shining through the dark … just to remind us how important it is to fight for democracy and for free speech and for being the society we want it to be."

Aslaug Holm is one of the directors of the new documentary Generation Utoya, which follows the aftermath of the 2011 mass shooting in Norway. (Hot Docs)

For Gunaratnam, that society is the one she'd so passionately described to her parents all those years ago — a country where people are free to express their disagreements without resorting to violence.

It's a vision of Norway that was almost shattered 10 years ago, when when she leapt into the cold waters off Utoya Island and swam for her life. 

"He makes me swim through the water like my mom had to do when she tried to come to Norway," Gunaratnam said. "My whole world got shaken. And even though I know I have a better life in Norway and I'm so happy that we live here, I can't just take it all for granted."

In the aftermath of the attacks, people all over the country held roses and vowed: "Never again." It's a promise Gunaratnam is trying to keep. 

Norwegians hold roses and comfort each other as thousands of people gather at a memorial vigil the attacks on on July 25, 2011. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

One way she does that is by traveling the country and speaking to schoolchildren about her experience. 

"The first and the most important thing that I like to do with this workshop is about freedom of speech. Like, how do you handle [it] when you disagree? How do you move forward when you have an idea that might provoke someone?" she said.

"This guy, this terrorist guy, he came to an island because he disagreed with us. He could not have the self-confidence to meet us in a debate. He couldn't speak. He couldn't write. He couldn't do anything in a democratic way to show his disagreement with us."

The kids, she says, often ask her if she hates the man who killed so many of her friends and colleagues.

"I tell them that I don't want to waste my time on hate…. They get shocked, naturally, like, 'Why don't you hate him? Why don't you want to kill him?'" she said.

"And I'm telling them that, you know, it doesn't help anyone. I don't feel like it. I don't feel like killing him or hating him. I just feel pity for him. I do. And that pity, it's going to be translated into actions and other hopeful tools for other people."

These brave young women that have experienced this horrible attack, they have this powerfulness in their voice, so I actually believe them when they are speaking. It's not just political words. It's actually about changing the world.- Aslaug Holm, director of Generation Utoya

Gunaratnam says she advocates for policies she believes will keep all Norweigians on equal footing — a strong tax system, safe and stable work conditions and publicly funded schools. 

But fighting for progressive values is no longer an easy feat in Norway, says Holm. 

"The values Breivik had reflects, in a way, the threat in our time," she said. 

Breivik launched his attacks while a global refugee crisis was bringing more migrants than ever to Norway's shores, sparking a xenophobic backlash in the country. The killer, according to his own testimony and written manifesto, was motivated by a deep hatred of Muslim immigrants.

His beliefs — while not widespread — are hardly unique, Gunaratnam said. She faces that kind hatred every day as a public figure. And her parents still fear for her safety. 

"They are not happy about what they read in [the comments] on Facebook and Instagram," she said. "The right-wing thoughts and the way they mobilize to attack people with immigrant backgrounds, especially women and young women with immigrant backgrounds; it's horrifying."

She's used to it, she says, and her position as deputy mayor provides her a measure of security. But she worries that if young people see those comments, they will be discouraged from becoming politically active themselves. 

That's why both she and Holm hope the documentary will give young people a sense of optimism.

"These brave young women that have experienced this horrible attack, they have this powerfulness in their voice, so I actually believe them when they are speaking. It's not just political words. It's actually about changing the world," Holm said. "That is what gives hope."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Aslaug Holm and Kamzy Gunaratnam produced by Kate Swoger.

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