In an orphanage in the southern part of the African country of Swaziland, a group of students are brought together and given an extraordinary project. They are going to forge the story of Liyana, a fictional heroine born from their collective experiences and imaginations. The film of the same title, “Liyana,” is both a telling of this original story, as well as the non-fiction story of its young creators who made it up.
Early on it’s established that, while the story of Liyana is fictional, it is born from a combination of every orphan’s experiences. In a traditional documentary, we’d be given backstory on each of our protagonists and how they ended up in the orphanage. Instead, through Liyana’s story, a few universal themes tell us all we need to know: parental neglect, HIV/AIDS, robberies, and abuse all play contributing roles. But the fictional story of Liyana is also unfiltered by adulthood and is a joyful odyssey of adventure and fable. It should come as no surprise that children are fantastic storytellers.
The documentary side of the film uses a mix of individual interviews and sequences with the orphanage. For Liyana’s story, beautiful, one-of-a-kind animation matched with the voices of various interweaved students tells her hero’s journey. It’s a true children’s story of overcoming obstacles and going on an adventure. As a fable, the story is able to incorporate exciting adventures for Liyana unrestrained by non-fiction (rich with animals, monsters, and other fantastical elements), but that clearly parallels the emotional journey each of these children has been on. The fact that “Liyana” is a universal tale so richly realized by children based equally on their unrestrained imagination and own experiences creates something truly special and compelling to watch given the context of its creation. This film is a testament to the power of story.
“Liyana” is a beautifully realized documentary from director duo Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp, and exactly the type of gem that represents the great stories LA Film Festival offers year after year.
A hero of the non-fiction story is the story advisor Gcina Mhlophe, described as a Swazi rockstar by the filmmakers. Mhlophe uses the power of ‘creative therapy’ to bring this story to life. A few great moments show her in action, discussing ideas for what should happen to Liyana next, not restricting any of the kids and their imaginations. One of the most powerful scenes is when the kids discuss how Liyana will start their journey, and without any backstory needed we understand this inciting incident is born from their own memories and past, resulting in a great launching point for the journey to come.
I love the power of storytelling and I find that films which address it can enhance our understanding of its capability. At LA Film Festival this year, both this film and “Monkey Business” address this topic with emotional resonance enhanced by the multi-medium elements documentaries are capable of. Stories (including movies) have frequently been a great means to understand cultures and experiences far from our own. Toward the end of “Liyana,” one of the storytelling students says, “When people remember Liyana I want them to remember us, our words.” Hearing this story alone will not end poverty or empower the underprivileged, but is a necessary and powerful step toward continued worldwide empathy. “Liyana” is a beautifully realized documentary from director duo Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp, and exactly the type of gem that represents the great stories LA Film Festival offers year after year.
To learn more about the film, it’s extended journey toward release, and updates for future screenings, be sure to visit the film’s website and subscribe to their mailing list: http://www.liyanathemovie.com/#the-film