“If I had started to think about it as a problem, which it was, I would have probably not made the film. There have always been parts of my decisions that are hidden from me, but what was special this time was it really came like a meteorite. It came very, very suddenly. I was planning to make a completely different film, but this whole universe, this whole story, collided into my head one day.”
Speaking by phone from New York City, Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson, 33, is trying to explain the impulse behind his latest film, Lilya 4-Ever. Shot largely in Estonia, with a cast speaking mostly Russian, it is the harrowing tale of a teenage girl abandoned by her mother to fend for herself amid the ghost-town remains of a once-thriving factory outpost. Shooting a film in a language you don’t understand sounds like a reckless decision, but for Moodysson it was simply the latest step in his emergence as one of the world’s most slyly engaging filmmakers.
His first film, 1998’s Fucking Åmål — released in the U.S. under the title Show Me Love — was about the coming out and coming together of two teenage lesbians; Moodysson himself is married with two young sons. His next film, Together, concerned the goings-on in an urban commune in 1975 — the year he turned 6. His knack for evincing emotional truths and honest details is all the more astounding considering Moodysson has so far dealt with subjects he would seem to know little or nothing about.
“Hopefully it works like someone who landed on this planet from Mars,” he says. “I’m sure I make a lot of mistakes, just like a Martian would do. He would misunderstand things completely, but maybe he would also see things those of us who live here don’t really see. I want to explore universes and characters that are close to me, but still very different. The difference keeps you curious.”
Rather like Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, Moodysson’s work is political without seeming overtly so, opting instead for subtle, discreet observation. Together’s commune serves as a miniature version of any community forming and finding its way, while Lilya, with its mix of the tragic and the oddly uplifting, is like a cry in the night for the forgotten and the overlooked everywhere.
“My main interest was to make people angry,” says Moodysson. “I don’t want audiences to get depressed, I want them to walk out of the theater and say, ‘This is something I cannot accept, this is something I have to do something about.’ If a thousand people leave the theater like that, maybe one or two will actually do something.”
Do something about what, exactly? “The sex traffic, yes,” he says, “but also the underlying reasons, the world order as it is today, a world order where there are enormous gaps between the rich and the poor, which creates lots of desperation, violence and tension. That is what I want to achieve, that people go out and think about the political, economic and social system we live in.”
Moodysson once flipped off all of Sweden on national TV, and certain of his remarks at Sweden’s recent Guldbagge awards (where Lilya 4-Ever won best film, director, screenplay, cinematography and actress) drew the rancor of local tabloids. Unafraid of courting controversy, he has no qualms about discussing connections between his film and larger world events. “I don’t have a problem with seeing a connection between the [Iraq] war and the exploitation of human beings,” he says. “I think it now seems a stronger film and a more important subject to talk about. I think it speaks to what the world is based on, and I think I’m getting a clearer picture of what’s happening in the world.”
Having published his first book of poetry at 17, by his mid-20s Moodysson had become “bored” with being a poet and moved on to filmmaking. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he explains. “I just wanted to be something else. My filmmaking so far has been a reaction against my poetry. Now I’m trying to find a way to combine the interior, poetry side of me and the realistic side of me. I’m trying to find some common ground for those two different voices.”
When I ask just how that union will take shape, even on the phone I can sense a mischievous, just-you-wait grin: “You’ll see in my next film.”