“Liyana,” a powerful new documentary/animation, had its world premiere at the 2017 LA Film Festival. Executive produced by Thandie Newton, “Liyana” is a story born in the imaginations of five orphaned children in the Kingdom of Swaziland.
The film follows the children—Zweli, Sibusiso, Phumlani, Mkhuleko, and Nomcebo—as they collaborate to tell the original tale of Liyana, a fictional character whose early life bears remarkable similarities to their own. The world that the children imagine for Liyana is brought to life through animation, creating a hybrid film that weaves documentary scenes together with an animated adventure.
Under the guidance of acclaimed South African storyteller, Gcina Mhlophe, the children transform their darkest memories and brightest dreams into fuel for their fairytale about their heroine, Liyana, a courageous young girl who embarks on a dangerous quest to save her family.
After an idyllic early childhood, Liyana becomes a big sister when her mother gives birth to twin boys. Liyana’s father is a nasty drunk who beats her. She’s always scared except when he goes to work, in town, after which he hangs out at nightclubs. There he drinks, enjoys himself, and spends time with sex workers. Ultimately, he contracts HIV and comes home sick. Liyana’s mother cares for him until his death, before she dies, too—leaving her children orphaned with their feeble grandmother.
One night, robbers break in. They beat Granny, assault Liyana, and kidnap her brothers. Granny tells Liyana to follow their tracks, to catch them before they can sell her brothers to bad people. She gives her granddaughter an ihiya (shawl) and ligcebesha (beautiful necklace) to keep her warm and remind her of home. “Be brave,” she tells her, as Liyana and her trusty sidekick, the family bull, embark on a dangerous and beautiful journey into the wilderness.
They cross the jungle, rivers, and treacherous desert terrain, and grapple with hunger, hyenas, crocodiles, and monsters. All along the way, Liyana shows the utmost courage in this epic tale of a little girl’s bravery.
Liyana’s journey is brought to life with the artwork of Shofela Coker, a rising Nigerian animation artist. “Early on…the idea of a breathing painting that evokes the intimate feel of pop-up storybooks or shadow puppetry was decided upon,” Coker says. “We stylized traditional Swazi pattern fabric and textures…[and directors] Aaron and Amanda Kopp’s photography from Swaziland was also key to inspiring a sense of authenticity to the visual language.”
To his credit, “Liyana” was realer than any Disney animation I’ve ever seen—largely due to the layered, dynamic visuals and the serious subject matter. While NGOs regularly use cartoons and other art forms to educate about health and safety in the Global South, Western audiences aren’t used to seeing issues like sexual violence, human trafficking, and HIV/AIDS explored in this form. What lends even more gravity to the film is the fact that this story is culled from the orphans’ real-life experiences.
“The kids that we are working with, they come from the very dark side of life. They’ve been hungry. They’ve been in so much pain and abused and suffering so early in life. They have those images playing over and over in their minds,” Gcina says. “Working with a fictional character allows a child to delve into places that they’ve covered and stored away.”
We hear quotes from the kids about their parents dying, being orphaned, and surviving abuse. We learn the stats on HIV/AIDS incidence in Swaziland, where 25% of adults are infected with HIV/AIDS and more than 200,000 children have been left orphaned and vulnerable.
Against this backdrop, we watch the children farm, feed the pigs, go to school, and get eggs from the chicken coop. We wait with a child, Thulani, who gets a blood test that comes back negative for HIV. Occasionally, the children sit in a room together with a storyteller and weave the most brilliant, dramatic fairytale on par with any Pixar flick. They are natural storytellers, sharing their ideas in the classroom, voting on what plot developments they like most.
“It’s more difficult to live your life, than writing a story,” Zweli says.
They put robbers in the story inspired by a violent robbery that took place three months earlier at the orphanage. They talk about surviving devastating life events, turning their pain into creative fodder for Liyana’s story. Then they go back to playing football and cards, a family of sorts.
“When Liyana’s story keeps going, mine keeps going. Sometimes it will start to go low and I will start to be brave and be strong. I want my story to end well,” Sibusiso says.
And with this film, it does.
Just like the orphans, Liyana's bravery, courage, ingenuity, and devotion should be celebrated. And despite the long list of end credits, the children are the real stars of “Liyana.” And while the documentary/animation hybrid worked well, the standalone animated story could compete with any on the international market.
The world desperately needs to see more stories like this. I hope to see more from these children in the future.