Liyana: the story of a brave girl created by eSwatini orphans

Liyana: the story of a brave girl created by eSwatini orphans
Still from Liyana. Courtesy Flickr Commons.
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Liyana is a film that brings together animation, real life, storytelling, and a group of orphans. Potentially the first movie of its kind, the concept behind Liyana was the brainchild of filmmakers Aaron and Amanda Kopp, but the story comes from children in the New Life Homes orphanage in eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland).

The Kopps originally wanted to make a documentary about the children in New Life Homes but they quickly realized the stories that the children came up with were far better. Assisted by South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, 10 orphans, ages 9 to 12, created a character named Liyana and the adventures she would go on during her story.

The movie is a unique blend of animation and documentary-style footage that blends the real-life stories of the children and the fictional tale of Liyana. The lives of the children are often reflected in Liyana’s own life and they tell the stories of what they know. For example, both of Liyana’s parents are HIV positive and all of the orphans involved have been affected by the disease in some way. Shortly before filming began, armed robbers broke into New Life Homes, meanwhile, in Liyana’s story, her younger brother is taken by robbers. Despite such trying issues, the feel of the story is hopeful. ‘They don’t identify just as the sum of their suffering,’ Aaron, who grew up in eSwatini, told NPR of the orphans. ‘They identify as cool kids who have big dreams and want to do big things in life.’

Liyana had its world premiere at the 2017 LA Film Festival and was released in the US in the fall of 2018. Since its premier, the movie has won over 20 awards, including the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the LA festival, the Grand Prize at both the Heartland Film Festival and New York International Children’s Film Festival, and Knight Documentary Achievement Award. The movie has also received raving reviews from various critics.

The children who made the film have come a long way in the eight years since the cameras started rolling. Some have since left the orphanage to attend high school or university in eSwatini or South Africa, while others are working to finish high school at home. All of the children, though, attended premiers of Liyana in eSwatini, New York, and Los Angeles.

Liyana was animated by Nigerian artist Shof Coker who created a unique blend of 3-D animation and Thandie Newton, Zimbabwean-English actress and star of Westworld, was the executive producer. Grants from the MacArthur Foundation and Doha Film Institute made up part of the film’s funding. The story of Liyana is expected to be turned into a graphic novel, as well.

‘I want them to remember I am the storyteller,’ says the last line of the Liyana trailer. It seems highly unlikely that this film – or the storytellers who created it – will be at all soon forgotten.