Lilya 4-Ever

Lindsay and Francesca Levy discuss the harrowing Lilya-4-Ever, directed by Lukas Moodysson.

, 16 June 2003

This is the latest reproduction of email exchanges between two

American friends living apart. This time they disagree on their topic of

choice; the film Lilya 4-Ever by director Lukas Moodysson. Lindsay saw the film in London on Tuesday 29th April as part of the Women’s Library film and debate at the Barbican Centre. Francesca Levy saw the film on 15th May, at Cinema Village, in New York City.

From Francesca

I saw Lilya 4-Ever last night and walked out before the last half-hour

because it was so revoltingly violent, gratuitous, and one-dimensional. The

fact is, there were redeeming things about it, points it was trying to make,

but it all washed away behind the half-dozen rape scenes and at least a

dozen other sexual exploitation scenes. I fail to see what the critics do:

that the movie is not exploitative, but rather shames the victimizers in the

film as well as the viewer. Sure it’s an unflinching look at the child sex

trade but really it isn’t, because that aspect of it is swallowed up by the

same recurring scene, and the whole movie occurs in one tone, without any

need to add dimension to any characters besides the angelic protagonists. As

far as I’m concerned it’s only distinction from the billion other movies

with horrible rape scenes is that in Lilya 4-Ever there are so damn many of

them, and they’re so graphically filmed.

From Lindsay

I’m afraid I completely disagree with you. I thought the film was really

powerful and not gratuitous at all considering the way so many rape and

exploitation scenes focus on nakedness and the sexual act. My perception was

partly influenced by seeing the film as part of a debate put on by the

Women’s Library with a panel of people who work directly with women who have

been trafficked into the sex industry saying it was absolutely true to the

life experiences they have heard over and over again. I also don’t see how

the protagonists were unquestionably angelic. Lilya was disrespectful to

adults, didn’t go to school or work (until she started sex work), sniffed

glue and hung around other kids who did the same. She is not a good kid in

most people’s eyes and a lot of adults would consider her to be deserving of

some of the neglect she receives. She is the poster ‘problem child’ that our

entire society deems in need of an adult to set her straight and make her

contribute to the world.

The main thing I felt the film addressed was the absolute lack of

responsibility adults take for young people who need their help or even

those they think need ‘sorting out’. Her parents and family didn’t give a

shit about her and social services, when blatantly informed that she had no

other guardian, failed to provide her with even the most basic support.

There were so many points at which an adult could have intervened and saved

her from her fate. But they didn’t. Day after day I deal with 16-year-olds

whose parents are fed up with them and willing to make them homeless because

they think they’ve done their part and that someone else will take care of

them.

I think that was why the film really hit home with me and I was relieved

that something that will be seen by a wide audience was able to express the

desperation and fear young people feel when they are neglected and thrown

out into the world before they are ready. Mostly I hope it will be a reality

check for people as to how it is almost inevitable that someone will be

there to exploit them when they are.

From Francesca

As you say, the realities of the child sex trade are a horror that the

international community has shut its eyes to for too long. Lilya 4-Ever

makes the audience feel depressed and abused, but doesn’t awaken it to these

realities. Instead, the incessant and brutal abuse of Lilya traps her in the

role of victim and leaves the audience feeling victimized, not transformed.

A movie has to set up some hope, some expectation that things will turn out

okay eventually, to really affect us when they don’t. With Lilya 4 Ever

there isn’t a moment of doubt that every turn she makes will lead her

further into despair. Even the warm scenes where Lilya and Volodya cement

their loving friendship are tinged with the knowledge that for Lilya, the

next level of hell is right around the corner.

You disagree with me calling Lilya and Volodya “angelic”. But excluding

Lilya and Volodya, the movie’s characters were uniformly despicable to one

degree or another. Only Lilya and Volodya are nuanced, sentient characters.

We can understand their motivations, and we see their internal conflicts

play out throughout the movie. Yes, they are deviant and shiftless, and

okay, they’re rude to adults. Still, it can’t be argued that the two were

anything but sympathetic. The heavy-handed use of symbolism, most notably a

fade from a shot of Lilya’s cherished portrait of an angel to Volodya

prancing around in synthetic angel wings sends the message loud and clear.

With Lilya, and real girls like her, facing such a bleak reality, why did

Moodysson feel he had to set up a dichotomy that strips the antagonists of

every last bit of humanity? Lilya’s mother abandons her for a new life,

effectively leaving her an orphan. But just in case this hadn’t gotten

across what a baddie she was, we’re given a scene of her in bed with her

lover/benefactor, gleefully promising him that it will be just the two of

them from that point on. Later in the movie, to drive the point home, the

scene at the child welfare office informs us that Mom has officially given

up custody of her daughter. Almost without exception, the people Lilya are

surrounded with abuse, humiliate or neglect her. Even Lilya’s erstwhile

friend Anna betrays her, labelling her a whore and, the movie would have us

believe, obliging her to live out that destiny. Is the director so afraid

that the horrors he is showing us will not sufficiently alarm and affect us

that he can’t give depth to the characters inflicting harm? In

underestimating our intelligence this way, he drains the movie of it’s

humanity, and ultimately leaves us cold.

Lilya’s reality is painful enough. Moodysson doesn’t have to bludgeon us

with it to make us see that. When he does, he flattens out the story and

turns the audience into horrified voyeurs. Had he used his gift for crafting

troubled, complex characters in writing the movie’s villains, I might have

been more inclined to deeply examine how an awful world like this can

emerge, rather than ducking into the cinema lobby in disgust.

From Lindsay

Moodysson is a director that uses one-dimensional characters and, you could say, stereotypes successfully in his comedy, as with the 70’s Swedish

hippies in his film Together. But I see the use of them in Lilya 4-Ever as

more than just laziness to hammer home a point about good and evil. We join

Lilya’s story the moment the most important adult in her life leaves. As you

say, her mother confidently confirms to the man in her life when they are

alone that Lilya will not also be a part of it; this scene and Volodya’s

destiny are the only moments when we are given a glimpse of what happens

outside of Lilya’s immediate experience. But the moment her mother is

leaving, she expresses genuine remorse for her selfish actions and the pain

that both she and Lilya display at this parting knocked the wind out of me.

When speaking to a friend after the film, he mentioned how profound he found

this moment in hindsight because the only assumption he could draw was that

the same exploitation was happening to Lilya’s mother in America

simultaneously with her daughter in Sweden. When Moodysson leaves it open

like this, the audience is obliged to question whether coercion and

domination played any part in the letter Lilya’s mother sends to social

services or indeed her being left behind in the first place. From this point

forward, every adult plays such a fleeting part in Lilya’s out of control

situation and the emphasis, up until she meets her ‘boyfriend’, is on what

these irresponsible adults don’t do, their lack of intervention and their

generally self-serving attitudes which is all heightened by showing only

brief, curt and aggressive interactions with Lilya.

At the Women’s Library discussion, the same woman who confirmed that the

story was familiar and accurate stated that the one thing she didn’t get

from the film was a deeper understanding of the motivation or justification

deluding the men who seek sex with obviously exploited under-age girls.

Perhaps this also contributes to the perceived black and white morality of

the film. While this might be enlightening to an audience more familiar with

the subject, it was what these men did, not what they thought they were

doing that irreversibly damaged Lilya and however many other young girls

they had abused and exploited. Normally, I prefer fiction that projects a

sense of moral ambiguity, but in this context, giving these men only

physical repugnancy while allowing Lilya a voice serves to counter the

common viewpoint and legislation that punishes sex workers and excuses the

‘clients’. Interestingly enough, Sweden is the only nation that takes a

stronger line with those buying sex than those selling it.

Considering the fact that the antagonists’ morality is presented

unambiguously, I can see how the Lilya and Volodya’s innocence can appear

heavy-handed. This is confirmed, as you say, by Volodya’s angel wings. But,

my interpretation of this imagery was another reminder of Lilya’s youth and

naivety as, after all, this was her fantasy. The childlike concept of what

happens when someone dies, sprouting wings and protecting those they love

who are still living, challenges the simplistic notion that through

traumatic incidents and sexual experience we automatically grow and mature,

leaving our child selves behind.

I think it is important to address the feeling of hopelessness you felt

after the film and for me to point out how I had a different experience. The

moments when Lilya stands up to her oppressors really affected me. I agree;

they didn’t actually fill me with hope about Lilya’s outcome, especially

since the most powerful of these occurs when she confronts a man who doesn’t

speak Russian, an act that can really only benefit her own sense of human

dignity and the tiny shred of self-determination she still holds. And yes,

there was a woman sitting close to me who, although she didn’t leave the

cinema, covered her face at the film’s climax. But when the film ended and

we dried our tears, it was clear, as Moodysson himself suggests, that the

hope and answers to the film’s questions lie in the discussions and searching

in which the audience will then participate, whether structured or informal.

The hope is that we will challenge the way western governments perpetuate

economic exploitation on a local, national and global level. More

importantly, we should stop pretending that because there are men posing as

boyfriends, mentors, priests, bosses, professors or relatives and not

clearly as pimps there is no intention to exploit girls rendered powerless

by this system. This film tells us that it’s time to challenge our own

complicity in seeing so many girls from other countries, from our suburbs

and rural areas, maybe even girls we know fall into sexual slavery at the

hands of these men.

Francesca Levy and Lindsay are clearly bored with their jobs and would

happily accept a living wage for their feminist film critiques.

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