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April 08, 2007
Lilya 4-ever, 2002, Lucas Moodysson
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.
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 with her "saviour"
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).
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".
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):
There is an excellent list of international organisations and a bibliography at this page.
Trafficking in Birmingham 2004:
Its still a problem in 2006: