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Lilya 4-Ever: Tolerating What?

Lilya 4-Ever, Lukas Moodysson, Denmark/Sweden, 2002, 109 minutes

700,000 women, according to UN figures, are currently ‘trafficked’ around the world, forced into sexual slavery and prostitution. In the ongoing ‘Tolerance Zones’ debate, both within and outwith the SSP, these figures and terms are bandied about to such an extent that it’s sometimes hard to grasp the reality behind them. The film ‘Lilya 4-Ever’ is a very immediate, visual and graphic contribution to this sometime academic discussion.

The director Lukas Moodyson tells the true life story of a sixteen year old ‘trafficked’ from Eastern Europe to Sweden, where she is kept imprisoned and sold for sex. The film is graphic without being lewd, and is told from the young people’s view of the world. The adults in the film – both men and women - are portrayed as uncaring, untrustworthy, selfish and brutal. Any tenderness expressed is that between the two young central characters, Lilya and Volodja. Poverty is presented as the obvious source of the willingness of young people to risk a new life in the ‘promised land’ of the West. And Moodysson cleverly uses the McDonalds brand to represent the insidiousness of globalisation. Finally, in a slightly bizarre twist, the film’s bleakness and hopelessness is resolved with a tragic but surreal conclusion which has echoes of Lars von Trier’s film ‘Breaking the Waves’.

The film is very powerful and in particular the scenes, viewed from Lilya’s eye view, in which a string of men pump themselves into Lilya’s listless body are absolutely unforgettable – and should be required viewing for anyone with an opinion on prostitution. Lukas Moodysson dedicated his film to the millions of children around the globe exploited by the sex trade, and has used it in Sweden to influence the recent changes in the prostitution laws there. (It is now the buyers of sex who are prosecuted, not the sellers.)

It’s not an easy film to watch. But the disgust and anger it engenders will hopefully raise the profile of the campaign to stop the trafficking of women, children – and men – across the globe. It inspires anger, and we need to act on that anger. In particular, when we debate Prostitution Tolerance Zones we need to ask ourselves the question ‘What exactly are we tolerating?’ Lilya answers that exactly!

Linda Gibson