In the multi-award-winning film, legendary South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope guides five orphans in The Kingdom of eSwatini through the process of creating a story. They workshop a gripping tale about a young girl, Liyana, who embarks on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin brothers – a fairytale story of perseverance drawn from their darkest memories and brightest dreams.
While the storytelling process is captured in traditional documentary style, the tale the children are telling is gorgeously animated, creating a unique hybrid film.
Liyana is directed by Amanda Kopp and eSwatini-born and raised Aaron Kopp, who shot the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face and the Oscar-nominated The Hunting Ground.
“I grew up in Swaziland and will always consider it my home,” says Aaron. “In part, this film is a love letter to my childhood in that beautiful African kingdom.”
“During our research period for the film, we talked to the children about their early life before they came to the orphan home and quickly realised that asking them to revisit traumatic memories in front of a camera was not the path we wished to take,” he says. “Films about the suffering of Africans in which the audience is led to feel pity or guilt have been made before. In contrast, Liyana gives our young storytellers the stage and allows them to take charge of the narrative.”
The story the children choose to tell is both inspiringly imaginative and heartbreakingly close to home, but the animation by Nigerian Shofela Coker takes it to the next level. As The Los Angeles Times put it, “The children’s stories alone would have been compelling, but illustrating them in this medium adds even more depth, nuance and emotion.”
Shofela comes from a family of artists in Lagos, but moved to the States, graduating from Memphis College of Art and working in the games industry as a character artist and art director. He was working for Sony when the Kopps headhunted him for Liyana.
“The kids’ personalities and ingenuity were inspiring and infectious,” he says about watching the rough cut of the film that convinced him to quit his job and join Liyana. ‘It reminded me of my childhood in Lagos, weaving stories with my siblings and improvising toys in the backyard with friends. The project seemed like such a special puzzle to solve, to help translate.”
Liyana is executive produced by Emmy winner Thandie Newton (Westworld), produced by Oscar winner Daniel Junge (Saving Face), and edited by Davis Coombe (Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice). South African Emmy nominee Philip Miller (The Girl, Miners Shot Down) composed the score, a fusion of both Western and traditional Swazi instrumentation.