Liyana documents the inspiring story of a young girl in rural Swaziland, whose parents die from AIDS, and whose little twin brothers are stolen by child traffickers after she and her frail grandmother are assaulted and abused. Liyana must then set out, against all the odds but with her loyal white bull by her side, to find her brothers and save them from men and monsters.
If this sounds closer to fiction than documentary then you are not entirely wrong, but where that dividing line actually lies is decidedly unclear. Liyana, the girl, is the fictional creation of a group of young Swazi orphans.
These children are guided through the creative process by Gcina Mhlophe, a South African icon of storytelling, who uses her craft to help traumatized children process their past, and awaken to their potential. Liyana, the documentary, is brought to life through a combination of charismatic narration by the children themselves, mesmerizing animation by Nigerian-born artist Shofela Coker, and live footage from the the children's lives shot by directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp.
Though Liyana is fictional, she is undeniably grounded in the experiences of these children, themselves orphans (Swaziland has a 25% HIV infection rate) and survivors of violence. The journey they take her on reveals to us something of the heartbreaking trials already encountered in their short lives, and reveals to them their own capacity to transcend those tribulations. Even more importantly, it awakens in them a power to determine their own lives; to create the story they want their lives to tell, defined by their dreams for the future and not their nightmares of the past.
Liyana is heart-wrenching without being traumatizing, empowering without being heavy-handed, and altogether gorgeous and surprising and satisfying; the film enjoyed a successful festival run. (It took home Best Documentary honors when it premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2017, and has also won for Artistic Bravery at the Durban International Film Festival.) The latter award in particular speaks to the creative novelty at the heart of Liyana.
This is a fundamentally collaborative film-making endeavor, hinging in equal parts on the children’s creative guide Mhlophe, their own creativity and vulnerability, the gorgeous animation by Coker, and the Kopps who directed, and whose deep roots in Swaziland sewed the seeds of this beautiful endeavor.
As a documentary about the age-old power of storytelling, Liyana sits comfortably alongside the best in the canon of this sub-genre, but I have to say that I think this film offers something even more, and not just because of its hybrid medium and collective creation. Liyana elevates the power of storytelling beyond the symbolic and abstract, to become something profoundly tangible; there is a visceral weight to the story composed by these children, and to its significance in their lives. Liyana is as real as their potential, and as the lives they will all go on to lead.
I left this film feeling similarly empowered, despite the incomprehensible distance between my life experiences and theirs. We don’t just all have stories to tell, or to learn from; we are stories, and the power to author our own lives is something we all need reminding of from time to time. Liyana will remind you, and charm and inspire you in the process.
Review originally published in slightly different form during the Durban International Film Festival in July 2017. The film is now playing in New York City at the Maysles Documentary Center. Visit the official site for more information.
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