‘Liyana’: Film Review | LAFF 2017

Liyana Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Intaba Creative
Gives powerful new meaning to the phrase ‘kids’ story.’

In the feature that received the LA Film Festival's Documentary Prize, a group of orphans in Swaziland create a character and set her on a heroic quest.

AIDS, alcoholism, kidnapping and rape — they’re not typical plot elements in the tales children invent. The young storytellers in the deeply moving documentary Liyana aren’t trying to be sensationalistic when they place such obstacles on their fictional heroine’s path; they’re simply drawing on what they know. They’re among the estimated 200,000 orphans in Swaziland, a tiny country with the world’s highest HIV infection rate.

Like their exceptionally charismatic subjects, husband-and-wife filmmakers Aaron Kopp (who grew up in Swaziland) and Amanda Kopp acknowledge these harrowing realities without dwelling on them. The Kopps give the kids center stage, and the result is a lyrical work that’s as bright and captivating as it is poignant. The beautifully crafted film, scheduled to screen at the Durban International Film Festival on the heels of its jury prize in Los Angeles, is a spirited testament to the power of creativity — not only as a source of strength and joy, but as a way to access buried emotions.

The kids conjure a world of danger and enchantment that the directors bring to life, with crucial contributions from South African author and storyteller Gcina Mhlophe and the San Diego-based, Nigerian-born visual artist Shofela Coker. At the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha home for orphans, Mhlophe is a guest instructor, leading a workshop in which the students, mostly boys about 11 years old, create a character named Liyana, a resilient girl whose trials, tribulations and delights mirror their own. Coker’s vivid, painterly imagery illustrates the trajectory the kids dream up for their heroine, one that leaves her parentless and setting out into unknown territory with her beloved bull to rescue her kidnapped twin brothers.

Aaron Kopp’s intimate camerawork captures the kids’ faces lighting up during their collaborative brainstorming sessions, in English and Siswati (Swazi), under the warm and vigorous guidance of Mhlophe. Kopp and his co-editor, Davis Coombe, fluidly interweave footage of the kids and Coker’s pictures, which have the rich intricacy of hand-painted children’s picture book illustrations and are very subtly animated: The 3D characters themselves don’t move, but in the layers of 2D background and foreground images, perspectives shift and colors change with the movement of the sun.

That smart aesthetic approach perfectly complements the exuberant and deeply felt narration provided by a core group of five storytellers. Interviewed individually, they provide sound effects and hammy flourishes, as well as heart-stopping moments of quiet intensity when they describe the most trying aspects of the story they’ve imagined. “Everything is not okay in Liyana’s family,” one boy comments with searing understatement before he and his fellow storytellers detail her father’s drinking, physical abuse, philandering and death from AIDS.

In striking contrast, there’s the communal life of the children’s rural home, brought into vibrant focus in scenes of the kids sharing meals, playing, working the farm’s soil, herding the cows and feeding the pigs. Liyana will encounter more stylized versions of the vistas they face on a hike through nearby mountains. Her journey will entail violence, hunger and despair, but along with the brutal robbers and snapping crocodiles, there’s comic business as well as glimmers of magic. There are breaks in the action in order to appreciate the beauty of a sunrise or the sweetness of a ripe mango.

The children of Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha have created a quest saga with universal appeal, complete with detours, diversions and death-defying acts of courage. But as one young boy’s visit to the local clinic for a blood test makes tenderly clear, Liyana’s crucible also reflects their own with a terrible specificity.

Without lapsing into therapy-speak or theorizing, the doc makes the therapeutic value of the storytelling fully felt. Some of Liyana’s creators don’t remember their families; others remember them all too well. When the protagonist’s ordeal ultimately leads to the formation of a surrogate clan, what might have been a feel-good cliché in a lesser saga instead reverberates with the hard-won celebratory ring of firsthand experience.

Production companies: Intaba Creative, Shine Global
Directors: Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp
Story by: Sibusiso, Zweli, Phumlani, Nomcebo, Mkhuleko
Story adviser: Gcina Mhlophe
Producers: Amanda Kopp, Aaron Kopp, Daniel Junge, Davis CoombeSakheni Dlamini
Executive producers: Lisa Schejola Akin, Thandie Newton, Susan MacLaury, Albie Hecht
Director of photography: Aaron Kopp
Editors: Aaron Kopp, Davis Coombe
Composer: Philip Miller
Animation artwork: Shofela Coker
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Preferred Content

77 minutes