Lilya 4-Ever

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 its 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.