A warning: spoliers are contained below, but you may want them if you plan on seeing this movie.
And a note: I used the spelling 'Lilja' when referring to the title of the movie, which is the actual title of the movie and uses the Swedish transliteration of the Russian name. But when referring to the character, I used 'Lilya,' which is an easier and more accurate representation for English readers. In Cyrillic, the name is spelled Лиля
Lilya is sixteen. She lives in an absolute shithole of an industrial town, somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Ugly, Soviet-era concrete apartments, with stained walls and boarded windows, jut up out of the cracked and rutted concrete lots, rimmed with dead gray grass and ashen snow. A skinny street kid- Volodya, who we will meet later- plays basketball with himself by throwing a tin can through a bare hoop. As the can clatters to the gravel ground, he throws his hands up and says, “Yaazzz!”
Standing in a crumbling doorway, filled with rubble and broken bottles and sodden newspapers, Lilya is ecstatic. She’s screaming. "A-mer-ee-ca! A-mer-ee-ca!" Her friend Natasha tries to calm her down as she jumps up and down. You could power a fucking steam roller with the glow of her smile, because she is getting out, going to the States with her mother and Sergei, her mother’s Russian- born American boyfriend.
From the hopeful note this movie starts on, it takes an abrupt turn. At the dinning room table that night, Lilya’s mother informs her that she and Sergei are going to go to America, first, without her, and then send for her later, and “that’s just how it is.” From the mother’s tight mouth, averted gaze, and stumbling tone, we see what Lilya, too, sees: she is being abandoned. They will not send for her. She is going to stay here, and she is on her own.
From there on, whenever you think things are taking a turn for the better- or for that matter, whenever you think they couldn’t get any worse- you will be promptly corrected. Lilya’s aunt takes the family apartment over, sending Lilya to live in another one- a crumbling dump even by local standards. Her best friend betrays her, cruel students and teachers run her out of school, she runs out of money for food or heat. She hooks up with Volodya, the urchin- her only companion- and they run around sniffing glue out of plastic bags and taking a dead man’s unlabeled prescription medications. The two of them seem so terribly lovable- watch Lilya’s enchanting smiled or Volodya’s endearing slouch, watch them dance together through an abandoned Soviet base- and yet there's no one there to love them but each other.
The only source of income Lilya can find is prostitution- she picks men up at a dance club and pukes in an alleyway after each trick. She can’t bring herself to look at them while they’re fucking her; we hear their panting and see her face, eyes squinted shut, turned away against the pillow. Local hoodlums force their way into her apartment and rape her in front of Volodya.
The worst, though, is yet to come: Andrei, a handsome, gentle man who earns her trust, turns out to be part of a human trafficking ring, and Lilya finds herself in Sweden, her passport taken away, locked in a bare apartment. She is allowed out only to be escorted to the homes of men she is forced to sleep with. If she tries to escape, she is told, she will be killed; if she goes to the police, she will be deported, and killed when she returns to Russia. When she disobeys she is beaten and violently raped. And meanwhile, Volodya, left all alone back home, has committed suicide, overdosing in the hallway of Lilya’s old apartment building. The landlord yells and kicks at his dead body, telling him to get out of her hallway. And, finally, Lilya will kill herself too, jumping off an overpass when she finally manages to escape from her captor. She simply sees no other option.
Watching Lilja 4-Ever is the emotional equivalent of being thrown repeatedly against the wall. The film has been both praised for its realism and derided for its emotional manipulativeness, which should give you some idea of what you’re getting yourself into should you choose to watch it. It is a story of desperation and desperate people, of hopes deferred and then destroyed.
This is both the genius and the flaw of the movie, depending on who you ask. It wants to tell the story of those people out there- and they are out there- for whom everything goes so horribly, crushingly wrong that they are broken forever, and in the end simply cannot go on. It is about lost, lonely people who no one cares about. It is not a tragedy, not in the Greek sense, for Lilya and Volodya are innocent people, they are children. They are not courting their downfalls- they have never had any choice. They are simply being broken, bit by bit, by the world. The questions this raises are at the heart of the controversy about Lilja 4-Ever. Why would we want to watch this happen to people? What good can come out of it?
The first answer is that we need to draw attention to the social issues. This movie has been praised by human rights organizations (the DVD version I have has commentary from both Unicef and Amnesty International) for its brutally truthful portrayal of sexual slavery. As the short film by Unicef informs me, every year over a million children are trafficked and exploited, most from Latin American and Eastern European countries, but also from poor places everywhere in the world. The chief recipients of these exploited children are Western countries- in Lilja 4-Ever, it’s Sweden, but the UK and the US are also major players. On this level, Lilja 4-Ever succeeds. No one can come away from it without feeling the impact that human trafficking can have on lives. But it also becomes an ‘issue’ kind of movie, one that serves a political purpose and not an artistic one, and in the end makes us feel a little manipulated by how hard it tugs on our heartstrings.
The second answer is a deeper and uglier one, and may be the most honest answer of all: we watch this movie to satisfy our curiosity and our voyeurism about other’s pain. We watch this movie to see what it’s like to be Lilya for a couple of hours, after which we can go back to our much more privileged lives and forget all we want. It’s a pitfall that many, many movies fall into- in fact, it could be argued that it is impossible to avoid entirely- that any suffering the characters undergo is ultimately there for our entertainment.
The third answer, beyond and above all of that, is the urge to make a life like Lilya’s matter. Make it matter to us in death, since it couldn’t matter to anyone in life. Lilja 4-Ever is based roughly on a true story, and it is certainly based on true things that happen every day. There are people out there- maybe even in your city, in your town- whose lives are essentially throw-aways. So shot through with misery that they aren’t even worth living. We don’t want to believe that happens. We want to believe that there is salvation for everybody, opportunity for everyone. We want to believe that everybody has a chance to be happy. But it’s not true. And if it can’t be true, the least we can do is try to give those lives a context of significance, of sum and substance and force.
The actual answer is probably a combination of all three. I’ve been thinking about Lilja 4-Ever an awful lot since I saw it, and I still cannot decide what I really feel about it, whether I think it was good or great or trashy and cheap. I will say this for it: I think many of the objections people have raised to Lilja 4-Ever stem from the simple fact that they feel cheated by it. It’s the lack of a happy resolution that makes the movie unique, not the possibility that it may be exploiting people’s emotions. Films exploit people’s emotions- that’s pretty much how they work. When people get to the end of Lilja 4-Ever, though, they see no immediate gratification for the emotions they’ve expended- no future and little hope. And then they ask why, why are we doing this? I wondered myself.
Regardless, it is a powerful movie, and it is a beautiful movie. It was filmed in Paldiski, a Russian-speaking district outside Tallinn, Estonia, and every sweeping shot of the apartment blocks under leaden skies is endowed with a haunting sense of a collapsed and hopeless world. And the acting- done mostly by newcomers and minors- is exceptional. I recommend the experience if you think you can take it.
Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson. 2002. In Russian and Swedish.
Oksana Akinshina.... Lilya
Arytom Bogucharsky.... Volodya
Lyubov Agapova.... Lilya's mother
Elina Benenson.... Natasha
Pavel Ponomaryov.... Andrei
End child exploitation: