“It is more difficult to live your life, than writing a story.”
The above quote comes from, Zweli, one of five orphaned children from the Kingdom of Swaziland, a small country in Southern Africa, featured in the award-winning, highly emotional film, Liyana. The film is done a style that partners documentary with 3D animation. This compliments Liyana, which is about children collaborating to create a fairytale that uses their tragedies to shape the story’s child heroine, Liyana, and her journey.
The journey includes the deaths of the title character’s parents. It also follows the dangerous journey she must undertake in order to rescue her younger, twin brothers, Kudvuma and Umbane (the brothers’ names mean thunder and lightning because they were born during a thunderstorm), who are both kidnapped. Their fairytale is guided by acclaimed storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, who holds a workshop at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha, a home for orphans in Swaziland.
Liyana is executive produced by award-winning actress, Thandie Newton (Westworld). It’s the directorial debut of filmmaker and cinematographer Aaron Kopp and his wife Amanda Kopp. In Liyana, the Kopps capture the beauty and tragedies in the South African country, from the breathtaking mountains and the wilderness reserves to the cultural festival and Mlawula Nature Reserve hiking trails.
The tragedies include having the highest infection rate in the world, with more than 25 percent of Swaziland’s adult population infected with HIV/AIDS. This results in more than 200,000 children, in a population of 1.2 million, who are left orphaned and vulnerable. The orphanage and the workshop are the children’s saving grace. The Kingdom of Swaziland is a lower income country that is a member of the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the United Nations. Swaziland’s King is Mswati III has been King since 1986. According to Reuters, in April, King Mswati changed the country’s name to eSwatini, because he was tired of people confusing Swaziland with, Switzerland.
Mhlophe, who is also an anti-apartheid activist, actress, and, director, guides the children in creating Liyana. “We are on the journey to create and shape the character. You are the ones making it happen. We don’t know where the story’s going. You will decide,” she says.
The scenes in the workshop are like being in a writer’s room with the children–writers–tossing ideas and suggestions that will make the story great. They give the Liyana a face using magazine cut-outs of dark brown eyes, a nose, mouth, and hair. They draw and color pictures of what her home should look like and give her a family. In sync with the children, Nigerian artist Shofela Coker breathes life into the main character, her family, and Swaziland using striking, rich colors. The story is narrated by the children in various scenes in the classroom and as a group giving suggestions on what the story will be about. Then, the story’s told individually, as the animation goes along. This is not only a project, but it is also therapy for the children.
It’s easy to enjoy the children– Phumlani, Nomcebo (the lone girl narrator), Sibusiso, Mkhuleko, and, Zweli. They are not only narrating the story, but also doing sound effects, and using their arms and facial expressions during pivotal moments. That is what storytelling is about. When there’s action in the story, the kids do everything physically possible to describe the scenes. The fact that they take snippets of experiences from their lives to make the story is incredible, while also heartbreaking.
These are stories of abuse, living with HIV/AIDS, death. Some of the children go to a clinic daily to get their medications and to get tested for HIV/AIDS. With the exception of cows, chickens, and other farm animals, you see the children doing daily activities that are no different than most children all over the world. It’s schoolwork, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and playing outside. Their stories become Liyana’s story, from the joys of being a big sister to rising above and beyond a sibling’s duties to save what’s left of the whole family. Throughout the film, Liyana faces many obstacles, but holds on to her grandmother’s words, “overcome fear, and, hold on to hope.”
Despite experiencing tragedy, the children believe that they have a choice to make a positive turnaround. “In your life, maybe there is no hope. But sometimes, you need to keep pushing,” says Phumlani. The kids believe that, with perseverance, they will come out stronger and make changes along the way like their character Liyana.
“I am strong…like, Liyana,” says Nomcebo as she sits in a tree. “And I will write my own story, and I will decide how it will end.”
Liyana brilliantly masters the art of storytelling through children who did not need much of an imagination to bring that story to life.
Liyana opens in theaters, Oct. 10.
Visit www.liyanafilm.com for more information.