In the multi-award-winning film Liyana, legendary South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope guides five orphans in The Kingdom of eSwatini through the process of creating a story. They workshop a gripping tale about a young girl, Liyana, who embarks on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin brothers – a fairytale story of perseverance drawn from their darkest memories and brightest dreams.
While the storytelling process is captured in traditional documentary style, the tale the children are telling is gorgeously animated, creating a unique hybrid film that Entertainment Weekly called “Gorgeous. Unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen.”
As their real and imagined worlds begin to converge, the children must choose what kind of story they will tell — in fiction, and in their own lives.
Winner of 35 awards, including Best Documentary at Los Angeles Film Festival and the Grand Prize at New York International Children’s Film Festival, Liyana is directed by Amanda Kopp and eSwatini-born and raised Aaron Kopp, who shot the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face and the Oscar-nominated The Hunting Ground.
“I grew up in Swaziland and will always consider it my home,” says Aaron. “In part, this film is a love letter to my childhood in that beautiful African kingdom.”
He’s known the children in the film – Zweli, Sibusiso, Phumlani, Mkhuleko, and Nomcebo – for years. “During our research period for the film, we talked to the children about their early life before they came to the orphan home and quickly realised that asking them to revisit traumatic memories in front of a camera was not the path we wished to take,” he says. “Films about the suffering of Africans in which the audience is led to feel pity or guilt have been made before. In contrast, Liyana gives our young storytellers the stage and allows them to take charge of the narrative.”
In pre-production, Aaron spent time reading about creative art therapies as well as traditional stories in eSwatini. “It soon it became clear that the use of a fictional character, created by the children, could serve as a unique window into their memories and emotions, while still ensuring some privacy,” he says. “As soon as we decided on this approach, we contacted South African storyteller and author, Gcina Mhlophe. I first saw her on stage when I was a teenager and remember being transfixed by her performance. We knew she would be the perfect guide for the children in their creative process.”
The story the children choose to tell is both inspiringly imaginative and heartbreakingly close to home, but the animation by Nigerian Shofela Coker takes it to the next level. As The Los Angeles Times put it, “The children’s stories alone would have been compelling, but illustrating them in this medium adds even more depth, nuance and emotion.”
Shofela comes from a family of artists in Lagos, but moved to the States, graduating from Memphis College of Art and working in the games industry as a character artist and art director. He was working for Sony when the Kopps headhunted him for Liyana.
“The kids’ personalities and ingenuity were inspiring and infectious,” he says about watching the rough cut of the film that convinced him to quit his job and join Liyana. ‘It reminded me of my childhood in Lagos, weaving stories with my siblings and improvising toys in the backyard with friends. The project seemed like such a special puzzle to solve, to help translate.”
The filmmakers didn’t want the animation to overpower the documentary scenes, so Shofela says they came up with “the idea of a breathing painting that evokes the intimate feel of pop-up storybooks or shadow puppetry…” The result has been widely praised and saw Shofela nominated for Outstanding Graphic Design or Animation at Cinema Eye this year.
Liyana is executive produced by Emmy winner Thandie Newton (Westworld), produced by Oscar winner Daniel Junge (Saving Face), and edited by Davis Coombe (Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice). South African Emmy nominee Philip Miller (The Girl, Miners Shot Down) composed the score, a fusion of both Western and traditional Swazi instrumentation.
Liyana has a rare 100% score from both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. The Hollywood Reporter praised it as “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 Los Angeles Times called it “True art… Shot through with equal parts trauma and hope.” And The Huffington Post called it “the standout film for me this year.”
“In Liyana, we hope the audience will be swept away by the children’s imaginations, in the same way that we were,” says Aaron. “The process of filming was exciting, because each day the children came up with weird and wonderful ideas that moved the story forward. Every time we interviewed Sibusiso, we would have to end the interview only because our camera batteries died, or because the light was gone, but never because he was out of ideas. By highlighting the unique perspectives of one of the world’s most marginalised and vulnerable populations, we believe we can challenge dehumanising stereotypes and transform beliefs.”
Watch Liyana Trailer Below:
Image Courtesy: Supplied