Directed by Amanda Kopp & Aaron Kopp
Starring Gcina Mhlophe
BFI London Film Festival Review by Chris Olson
You have not seen anything like this. A unique and masterful hybrid of storytelling conventions, filmmakers Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp deliver a documentary like no other with Liyana, a story stitched together by orphaned children in Swaziland. Running parallel with the footage of the enthusiastic kids is animation of the tale they are creating. What ensues is a tapestry of adventure, heartache, peril, joy and life.
In a country with the world’s highest rate of HIV amongst adults aged 15-49, it is a sad reality that hundreds of thousands of children are left parentless by a ravaging virus. The children featured in documentary Liyana are such victims, some with harrowing tales of a desperate childhood that involves being left alone in the world after their parents have been taken. So when storyteller and writer of children’s book Gcina Mhlophe introduces the idea of this group creating a collaborative story, audiences would be forgiven for fearing the worst. It is my honest pleasure to report, though, that the result is a joyous, affecting, and incredible piece of documentary filmmaking.
The viewer is witness to the group of orphans enthusiastically choosing the narrative of their central character Liyana’s journey. The storyline they compile is made of sequences that contain tragic allegories to their own experiences, the harsh conditions they have had to endure being mirrored by Liyana. Instead of being a seventy-odd-minute Children in Need segment, the children bring the story to life with their passionate performances of the plot and their insightful comments about the nature of their own life’s direction. By combining the idea of creating a story and dealing with the sometimes cruel realities of life, a wonderful atmosphere of hope and strength begins to seep through the screen as the viewer witnesses an emboldening of these vulnerable young people.
With the narrative combination taking place with the youngsters and Liyana, the filmmakers also chose to have a mixture of real footage and animation. For the audience this becomes an abstract experience of blurred fiction and reality, all with a sadness attached, that instead of removing the overall effect, actually enhances it. Some beautiful sequences show the kids in the picturesque hills near their group home, exploring the wilderness and working together. One incredibly gripping moment shows one boy in the doctor’s surgery as he waits to find out if he has the virus. Agonisingly compelling, it was a truly remarkable moment to be witness to and a horrific reminder of the state of conditions in Swaziland. We also see the children individually regaling the tale of Liyana to the camera, some with wonderfully elaborate keenness. The animated scenes are far from the best you will see in an animated film this year, but they are expertly cinematic and perfectly suited to the tone of the story.
Highlighting the power of storytelling in even the toughest of social climates, the robustness of youth, and how the human spirit can endure so much if imagination is introduced, Liyana the documentary is by all meanings of the word, a triumph.
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