Liyana, a young African girl, has had more than her share of trials.Her father was an abusive drunk who died of AIDS, but not before infecting her mother, who also died of that disease. She and her younger brothers lived with their grandmother, until one day robbers broke in to their home, abused Liyana, and stole the boys with the intention of selling them into slavery. So LIyana, armed with her grandmother’s blessing and accompanied by her favorite bull, sets off to rescue them.
Liyana is a fictional character, but her story draws on the lives of her authors, a group of young orphans in Eswatini, a small landlocked country in Southern Africa formerly known as Swaziland and that may be best known for having the world’s highest rate of HIV infection. The children who created the story of Liyana did so in a series of workshops run by the South African author and storyteller Gcina Mhlophe at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage where they live. Liyana’s story is informed by their own life experiences, as well as aspects of traditional folktales and fantasy stories, and all these different layers of narrative are wonderfully brought to life in Liyana, a film directed and produced by Aaron and Amanda Kopp (the former grew up in Swaziland) and executive produced by Thandie Newton.
Liyana mixes animation and still art by the Nigerian-born artist Shofela Coker with live action footage of the children going on about their lives at the orphanage, including the workshops with Mhlophe. It’s a winning combination that expresses both the harsh reality of life for these and many other children in Eswatini today, and their resilience and ability to thrive if given half a chance to do so. They’re naturals on camera, eagerly sharing their experiences and narrating the story of Liyana when they’re not engaged in farm work or other chores around the orphanage.
Many of the details of the young orphan’s lives are grim, and Liyana doesn’t try to avoid these realities (one scene involves children infected with HIV vising a bare-bones medical clinic for a checkup, while another child is tested for that same disease), but neither does it dwell in the sad aspects their stories. It’s a film that can be enjoyed by both children and parents, and which tells a story different from the usual animated children’s fare.
It’s an additional bonus that Liyana is an amazingly beautiful film, thanks in large part to Coker’s art and Philip Miller’s music, as well as unfussy cinematography by Aaron Kopp and efficient editing by Davis Coombe and Aaron Kopp. It’s already won a slew of awards on the festival circuit, including Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Miami Film Festival and the Grand Prize at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh
Liyana is available on DVD and Blu-ray as well as through VOD services including iTunes, Amazon Prime, and Google Play.