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September 23, 2007

Women & Film: The Representation of Women in the World Today

Women & Film: the Representation of Women Today

The Three Rs of Media Studies 


Each year, two million girls aged from 5 to 16 join the commercial sex market


Why is this film not more widely shown at the sixth form level?


I sometimes think that educational work up to and including sixth form work has a tendency to infantilise students and that this can happen especially within the world of media. Justified by the thinking that "the kids can identify more easily with this" type of approach, difficult content at an emotional and ethical level is ignored, yet the world is fraught with difficulties even in more advanced countries. To avoid this sort of thing in terms of content seems to me to be avoiding educational responsibilities. This is not to say that one should not teach about action-adventure films or soap operas, it is to say that by the time students enter year 13 they are a short distance away from voting and adult responsibilities. This means that a more sophisticated world view needs to be developed. Until there is more emphasis on this Media Studies - rightly but sadly in my opinion - will continue to be considered as a "soft" A Level.

In terms of media education this means that certain issues need to be prioritised because as educationalists we have a task to prepare our students for active and responsible citizenship which needs to be understood in a global context. Currently many students can go through OCR A2 media managing to avoid anything much to do with social reality. Even in a research choice like women and film this is still possible by focusing - as many of my students do - on say 'the changing representation of women in action adventure films' building on their AS experiences of action adventure movies. Why not do textual analysis on documentaries for example?  Combine action adventure with making a music video and there is little room left. A focus on rom-coms in contemporary British cinema and a bit about the invidious difficulties of competition with Hollywood, and most real world stuff is carefully avoided. 

As a lecturer at this level one can of course take a more socially responsible attitude. I take the opportunity to show Lucas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever  - a film which is most undeserving of an 18 certificate by the way. Some lecturers who know the film are a little surprised, however there are always some students who take it very seriously.  This year one of my students went straight out to buy a copy and several other ones are including in their research projects. Clearly many students are far more able to respond to difficult content than we often allow for. 

Kandahar 1

"Over two thirds of the World's 800 million illiterate adults are women, since girls in many parts of the World are not seen as being worth the investment"

Images from the film Kandahar. Amongst other things this film is representing the issues which real women in the real world face when it comes to be deliberately excluded from education. Shouldn't Media teachers be focusing more on these issues?  

Kandahar 2

Because our centre focuses on the issue of women and film for the Critical Research Project  I have included below a few facts and figures on the position of women in the World from the latest edition of the Open University publication "Society Matters". These facts and figures  show the vast gap between the quotidian social reality of tens of millions of people in the World and the World as represented in most facets of the media. My questions for Media Studies are "Why?" and "What are we going to do about it?" To think in any other way and to fail to act on this situation is to abrogate our ethical responsibilities.

Women's Inequality in the World is Increasing 

women Fighting Global Poverty 2

Women Fighting Global Poverty

Facts and Figures

During the last year British Government and independent Human Rights Groups have brought out a series of reports on the worsening conditions of women in the World reports Society Matters (Issue No 10 "2007-2008). The findings include the following:

  • Seventy per cent of the world's 1 billion poorest inhabitants are women
  • Women produce half the World's food but own less than 2 per cent of the World's land
  • Over two thirds of the World's 800 million illiterate adults are women, since girls in many parts of the World are not seen as being worth the investment
  • Domestic violence where women are predominently the victim, kills and injures more people in the develoing World than war, traffic accidents or cancer
  • Each year, two million girls aged from 5 to 16 join the commercial sex market
  • A third of the World's women are homeless or live in adequate housing
  • Women work two thirds of the World's working hours, but earn only a tenth of the world's income.

So much for "Reality TV"!

Let's put some reality into media instead


Endemol, the TV production which was responsible for the racism on Big Brother, has brought out a live organ transplant programme on Netherlands TV.  This is to appeal to the ghoulsih appetities of the lowest common denominator and has nothing to do with the remit of public service broadcasting which is to educate and inform as well as to entertain. 

"The scenario portrayed in this programme is ethically totally unacceptable," said Professor John Feehally, who has just ended his term as president of the UK's Renal Association.

"The show will not further understanding of transplants," he added. "Instead it will cause confusion and anxiety."

TV critics in the UK have expressed horror at the programme, but said such a show would be unlikely in Britain.

"My first reaction, probably everyone's reaction, is that this is as dangerously near as we've got to a TV programme playing God," said Julia Raeside of the Guardian newspaper.

"People may live or die on the result of a game show. It's a step too far.

The growth of such entertainment forms as "reality" TV is a direct subversion of everyday lived reality. Whilst it is worthwhile academics studying these forms to provide ongoing ideology critique for younger students it is more appropriate to study the reality of the world and its representation. arguably to engage too closely with populist forms promulgated by middle class parasites feeding off fantasy generation schemes exploiting the working classes at a low level in the educational hierarchy is to collude with the forms before the cognitive skills and life experience necessary to understand the workings of ideology and discourse have developed. 

The Three Rs of Media Studies

The opportunity to research Women and Film is also an opportunity to research the real conditions of  vast numbers of women worldwide and to ask why is it that entertainment forms manage to screen out reality so effectively with so little complaint.  Representation is recognisable by its absence from reality as it becomes increasingly focused upon an onanistic, narcississtic  world of "celebrity". Both text and context msut count equally in Media studies if this situation is to change. The social theorist Nancy Fraser has argued for Recognition (of identity), Redistribution (of wealth) to which I would add Representation (of social reality) thus creating the three Rs of Media Studies. 

April 08, 2007

Lilya 4–ever, 2002. Dir. Lucas Moodysson

Lilya 4-ever, 2002, Lucas Moodysson

Lilya 1

A moment of genuine pleasure for Lilya


It would be difficult to describe this film as ‘entertaining’ but it is a very powerful film which quickly drags the viewer into the realistic nightmare of post-Soviet Russia.  Along with many of the post-Soviet countries which used to make up the other side of the ‘Iron curtain’ Russia became a place where what most of us consider as normal rights of social citizenship such as housing, health, and jobs became hard to come by. As a result this opened up opportunities for the most unscrupulous and ruthless as morals and morale quickly collapsed into a free for all of 'survival of the fittest'.  The film is equally realistic about the collusion and conivence of Western countries at the level of the individual to exploit the situation for economic and sexual gain. It is also critical of Western countries at the level of government to fail to stop what some have described as a new slave trade. At the most general level Lilya 4-Ever can be understood as a breakdown in trust.

Lilya 4

Being abandoned by her mother &

approaching a moment of total abjection

Relevance to the critical research unit

Lilya 4-Ever is one of several films made by European film makers which came out not long after the turn of the millennium which dealt with the exploitation of the weakest in society who are forced into emigration because conditions have become so bad in their country of origin.

The Last Resort, by Pawlikoski and Dirty Pretty Things by Stephen Frears make up a trio with Lilya 4-Ever. All concern the exploitation of women in some way. Lilya is tricked into the sex trade, in the Last Resort the woman is tricked into arriving in England with her son expecting to be married after a liaison with an English businessman. She ends up in a downmarket seaside resort as an asylum seeker and eventually gets involved in a video pornography to gain some sort of an income. Dirty Pretty Things focuses on how potential immigrants and asylum seekers were tempted into selling some of their body organs in order to gain fake British passports. Of the three films Lilya 4-Ever fits very well with  three categories of research – Women and Film, Crime and the Media and Children and the Media. These films are due to be joined by Ghosts a film about Chinese undocumented labour, which leads up to the terrible tragedy waiting to happen on Blackpool Sands. Ghosts is due out on DVD in April 2007.

Lilya and boyfriend

Lilya with her "saviour"

Social realism

All three films are mainly social realist films and fit in well with the social realist strand of cinema which you will be covering when you look at contemporary British cinema. Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things are both British Films. Lilya 4-Ever is Swedish and uses social realism combined with fantasy sequences which function for the viewer as a representation of Lilya’s unconscious.

Social realism tries to represent aspects of life as they really are. Of course they still use cinematic techniques but they see themselves as grounded in social reality and they usually have a strong preferred reading emanating from the makers of the film. It is interesting that the Lilya 4-Ever DVD has appeals from both UNICEF the United Nations children’s section and Amnesty International as well. As a marketed package it clearly has an even stronger preferred reading for combining with these other texts very clearly positions it. In this sense Moodysson is a man with a mission as he explores the contradictions and  injustices of this world. It is of course possible to discuss this film from the perspective of  whether male directors can create good representations of women.

Lucas Moodysson as 'neo-Bazinian Realist'

In his article New Directions in European Cinema (2004) John Orr argues that moodysson is one of the powerful european necomers along with dirctors like Lynne Ramsey who have taken on the mqantle donned by directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Bertrand Tavernier. Bazin Orr notes saw cinema as a form of exploration in both documentary and fiction:

It would reveal to us ... more of the everyday world in which human beings lived at all levels of society, many of them previously excluded by the commercial dictates of cinema as a cultural industry. Many of the practical means he saw as facilitating this new kind of cinema still thrive, more so now than ever. There is still low-to medium-budget cinema, location-based, often using non-professionals, but focusing now on social malaise - exclusion, violence and poverty - in a more consumerist age ... where the excluded still miss out. The neo-Bazinian aesthetic usually stresses ensemble acting (with improvisation and comic diversion) and obviates star quality. (Orr John, 1990 pp 301-302)

Powerfully Orr links in the work of the Neo-Bazinians to that of the theorist Julia Kristeva through the development of the Bazinian aesthetic to what he describes as a "new unbalancing of perspective". Orr describes it as an anti-aesthetic style in which mise en scene becomes a site of prime deformation thus transgressing the classical style of realism. There is also what Orr describes as a traductive realism which through various camera techniques, differently used amongst directors. The net outcome of these techniques amounts to a 'going down.'

It is here that Orr draws upon the work of Kristeva to discuss the meaning of "abjection". He describes abjection as being:

... the suspension of identity in a world devoid of meaning where abjection is a safeguard, a choice for the liminal in the instance of the void. It is the choice to be stranded as protection against the void. The downward flight is a conscious exposure by the abject being to the very dangers from which it seeks to protect itself, and ultimately from death. (Ibid p 306).

Lilya in Sweden

So near and yet so far, Lilya looks

out on a World of apparent freedom

that she can never know. Is the spectator

in the role of the reflection gazing on Lilya

in her Swedish "prison"? 

Crticism of the Western States

Moodysson’s story takes male domination in contemporary Western society onto another political level for he explicitly criticises the role of the state at two crucial points. Firstly when the pimp tells Lilya that the police would only send her back to her own country and secondly this point is visually consolidated when Lilya feels she can’t take the opportunity to go up to the policewoman in the garage after she has escaped because she is so scared. As a result she ends up killing herself. The film provides some respite from this potential ending because we are given a scenario of choice. At the end of the day she is a human agent and can work it out, as the section on neo-Bazinian realism below discusses choosing the route of 'abjection' is sometimes a conscious but perverse one. We never know which choice she or others like her in real life make or made but we clearly see the results of the wrong choice. 

The mise en scene

The mise en scene of Lilya affects me every time I see it. My first visit to a post-Soviet country was in 1997 and the housing blocks that Lilya lives are absolutely typical. What I found interesting about housing in the Soviet Union was that unlike here it wasn’t based upon class and income although that is rapidly changing now. It used to be the case that doctors and other professionals would be living in blocks like these alongside labourers, mechanics etc.

The areas outside these blocks are called yards and they all seem to have a basketball net in them. It really is a big game certainly in Lithuania (one of the world’s best teams) the country with which I’m familiar. The paintwork the gloomy stairs, because electricity is so expensive relative to incomes ,and the extraordinary poverty of those who were most weakly positioned in society are all true. Many older people lost the value of their life savings as the Rouble lost much of its value. There were also many banking scandals with people depositing their savings and directors of banks running off with the money and lodging it in Swiss bank accounts.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also saw the rise of many small time criminals as well as the large scale ones. The bigger the criminal the more they can get away with things of course. The way in which the current owner of Chelsea football club made his way up is not paved with petals! The petty criminals and smaller gangs took to ruthlessly exploiting young women and young girls. Many young women are tricked into the sex trade in Western Europe by promises of jobs in modelling or even just – as was the case with Lilya – working picking flowers and vegetables.

When these women arrive on false passports - which are usually issued because they are under 18 – they are relieved of their passports and they are trapped. As in the case with Lilya even if they escape from the flats they are usually kept in the police used to send them back to their country of origin and the perpetrators usually get away with everything or else face only small fines or other minor punishment. When you consider the amounts of money that can be made there is little or no risk for the perpetrators. It is thus a very tempting business to the unscrupulous.

It was important in Lilya that the range of men she was farmed out to cut across class boundaries. She was even farmed out for group sex in men’s sporting clubs. This is a very important point, as this represents just how much a wide range of men collude with this illegal trade. Clearly Moodysson (a male director) is representing men as seeing women as vehicles for their own pleasures rather than as people. By doing this he is criticising the dominant ideology which encourages men to treat women in this way. Moodysson's representation of women is not in any sense idealised. Lilya is let down by mother, aunt and "best friend". 

Lilya Cover


From the perspective of using this film as a text in your research project there are many different avenues which can be explored. Not least there is the issue of whether women directors can represent the position of women better than men. There is the link to social reality about the ideological frameworks which create women as victims of what feminists would describe as a patriarchal system.

There are of course a number of potential extracts that could be used in your focus group work. Whilst the film seems unremittingly grim in terms of its preferred reading there is much in there which desires and demands your attention! There are a range of charities and some MPs who are very concerned to deal with some of these isues. Just as the work of Ken Loach in the sixties managed sometimes parts of the media can help to bring about. Indeed Moodysson is asking for people to choose life and to reject the abject. 


Here is a useful blog address (provided by visitor Colin). It is a useful MySpace blog with a video download and useful interviews with the director Lucas Moodysson and some information about the exploitation and eventual suicide of a young Lithuanian woman which helped inspire the story:

Here is a live Amnesty International Campaign operating in Greece (June 2007):

Rights of Trafficked Women in Greece .

There is an excellent list of international organisations and a bibliography at this page.

Trafficking in Birmingham 2004:

Its still a problem in 2006:

Danish anti trafficking project

December 31, 2006

Crime and its Representation in Cinema: Part 1

Crime, Vulnerable Citizens and the State


Crime films are not all ‘who dunnits’ or macho gangster films such as Guy Ritchie’s efforts. Many films that represent crime are examining how states can either specifically criminalise a class of people – women in the case of The Circle and Vera Drake (see below), or else the state can fail its citizens through negligence and allowing crime to exist against those in a weker position in society.

There are some films which include crime issues (primarily against children) as a part of the messages and values which the preferred readings of the films are intending to convey. An aspect which is worthy of discussion is in regard to how much crime might be ‘glamorized’ in parts of the media. Below I summarise ways in which the representation of crime can be understood as a critique of states or political systems going beyond the often harrowing circumstances of the individuals actually being represented.

Monsoon Wedding

Animated Images Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding is by a woman director (Mira Nair) and is dealing with crime against children at the level where those who a child should be able to trust most are, either perpetrating the abuse, or are thinking about sweeping it under the carpet.

It is worth remembering that the father of the family is actually a Judge! As part of a preferred reading the father as a representative of the legal system the Judge’s role functions as an allegory (standing in for) the state of India as a whole. What Mira Nair the director seems to be suggesting is that the state of India is not doing enough to protect its children within the family.

This film differs from the one’s below as the narrative clearly brings things back to a state of equilibrium (remember your Todorov here). There are of course other issues concerning women in the film such as power and women in society and the concept of the arranged marriage which challenges western notions of romantic love. Here you could compare the film with notions of romance as represented by Bridget Jones’ Diary especially if you are studying women in film. (More on the social construction of romance another time).

Lilya 4-ever

Lilya in her Western Sex Slave Prison

When we come to look at Lilya 4-ever by the male director Lukas Moodysson we see not only neglect and then abandonment of Lilya which leaves her exposed and vulnerable to the flourishing people trafficking trade. A trade which has been very profitable for ruthless criminals since the collapse of the Soviet Union (now Russia) and those countries which were allied to it. (Please also note there is a video interview with Moodysson on this BBC page).

Moodysson is clearly going beyond the crisis of the indvididual Liya and is criticising the Russian state for being unable to look after its most vulnerable citizens. But this criticism goes beyond Russia to Western countries themselves, for it is as though they have been turning a blind eye to – and even profiting by – the exploitation especially of children and women in these countries.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was a collapse in most of the key benchmarks of citizenship. People who were used to high levels of social citizenship (health, housing, employment, education and pensions) now found that they had to survive on their own. Many turned to criminal activities of which people trafficking and the sex trade has been an important one.

The representation of children within the media often functions as an allegory (stands in for) of innocence and vulnerability. In Moodysson’s film there is an indirect critique of the West (which Sweden stands for). Although Western citizens in general were pleased that the Soviet Union which had been seen as a military threat and as a repressive regime because its citizens had few political rights there was little attention paid to the social rights of these same citizens once the political regime (communism) had gone.

People’s life savings became worthless as the old Rouble collapsed against international currencies so Western companies moved into the old Soviet Union and brought up companies on the cheap. The ending of the film here is deliberately ambiguous. We have been shown the full alternative which Lilya would face if she didn’t recognise the danger. The audience is given hope at the end because she recognises that geographically fruit picking in Sweden in the middle of winter is impossible.


The short UNICEF appeal which was shown with Lilya forever shows just how prevalent in real life this kind of people trafficking is. It is something which also existed in an organised way in Victorian Britain. Both films show how far social reality is away from the concept of ‘not kicking people when they are down’ instead people are kicked a lot when they are vulnerable.

Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise deal with Lorry Driver

Thelma and Louise is also by a male director Ridley Scott. There is a separate article about how this film subverts the typically male sub-genre of the ‘Road Movie’. Here I wish to link it to the theme of the State and the way in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

The narrative event which upsets the equilibrium and drives the film is the attempted rape scene at the drive by bar and the subsequent shooting of the perpetrator who would only stop when a gun was literally held to his head. As it is usually the state and its representatives the police who have the power of lawmaking the fact that some citizens are forced to protect themselves by extreme means shows that in terms of sexual violence against women the state isn’t taking its responsibilities seriously. As an audience we are given the point of view of the women to elicit our sympathy. This initial critique becomes explained indirectly throughout the film for one of the women has had such dreadful experiences in one state that she refused to drive into it despite the fact that it is the quickest means of escape.

The role of Harvey Keitel as a policeman is to try and convince them that they will be able to get justice. The women refuse to believe that this is possible. Eventually they are trapped by the police and the film ends with them driving into space off the edge of the Grand Canyon. They are not allowed to escape over the border (apparently a production decision influenced by testing out different endings on sample audiences).

Thelma and Louise No way out of patriarchy

Whilst for many the ending was unsatisfactory as the women are seen to be punished many sexist attitudes are parodied (think of the lorry-driver). Cinematically the gloomy domestic interiors – compared with the free space of the road – also stand in for the repression of women within southern American society and it seems to be the Deep South that is being criticised here for its regressive attitudes towards women which in the past have been supported by the law.

Keitel represents ‘new man’, more understanding in his attitudes to women’s rights. The fact that the original rapist and characters like the lorry driver can view women only as sex objects is a critique of the real power structures present within those states for they can be seen to legitimate the grossly sexist attitudes. In this film the Todorov standard narrative structure isn’t used. The ending isn’t a return to equilibrium as far as those women were concerned although we could argue that as far as sexist southern society was concerned it did bring equilibrium and served to reinforce the status quo.


Women Criminalised by the State in Jafar

Crime doesn’t have to be a case of glamorization. Its representation can act as a critique of the state through the actions and events which happen to an individual. Other films to see which can develop your views on this can include City of God set in the Favelas of Brazil. The Circle shows how the theocratic state contrives to make criminals out of women in a very specific way.

Vera Drake as caring mother

Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake shows how working class women broke the law by arranging and carrying out illegal abortions whilst those women who were better off managed to manipulate the system although they were of course exploited. Again the state here is contriving to oppress its women citizens. There are of course many different crime genres and this article is only dealing with some aspects. Gangster and Heist (caper films) may represent entirely different aspects of life. Remember too, what counts as a crime depends to a great extent on where you are and how you are positioned in life. Democracy and politics are about renegotiating these boundaries. Media output is able to help or hinder this process.

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