The following review of Liyana is coverage for the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Childhood trauma is a difficult subject to explore through documentary, since so often children are subjects of abuse precisely due to their powerlessness relative to adults, and an adult examining those traumas for the purposes of crafting entertainment rather than therapy is bound to reopen wounds that a child may only just be coming to terms with. However, Aaron and Amanda Kopp‘s Liyana navigates those waters in a novel and intriguing way, using fiction and allegory to explore the psyches of a group of young children in Africa and demonstrate what horrors have wormed their way into their young lives, all while contextualized in a hopeful hero’s journey.
In an orphanage in Swaziland, storyteller Gcina Mhlophe meets with the child residents to craft a collaborative story in which the children decide what happens. Their invented protagonist is Liyana, the child of an abusive alcoholic and an AIDS victim whose twin younger brothers are stolen by a band of thieves who carry them off to a mountain den. With only her kindly grandmother’s advice and a protective bull to guide her, Liyana goes to save her brothers and, more importantly, face down her fears.
Liyana’s story is told visually through gorgeous paintings that paint Liyana and her surroundings in rich detail and are minimally animated in the style of a multi-planed motion comic. It operates on the basic structure of an archetypal quest narrative, but the characters origins and her struggles are reflective of those lived by the children who invented her. Whether it’s abuse, AIDS, hunger, animal attacks, or the simple joys of finding a stash of fruit, Liyana’s experiences are informed by real experiences that we are never directly privy to, but the children telling the story clearly have an emotional investment in their creation that goes far beyond a pride in having created this fiction.
The storytelling interviews staged with these kids demonstrates one thing with abundant clarity: these kids are survivors, looking for any scrap of hope to cling to. Their lives are regimented remnants of the stability they once had in living with their parents, and they are each fully cognizant of the suffering they’ve endured and the continued suffering they are going to experience as they approach adulthood. But what the Kopps are so adept at demonstrating is that these children are also full of hope and drive, and like many of us, they find comfort in the fiction of someone like them succeeding and overcoming their trials. It’s a simple but powerful demonstration of the power that stories have for their audiences, particularly audiences of poor and victimized individuals seeking solace.
I won’t pretend that the exercise of crafting Liyana’s story reveals any especially profound or revelatory truths about her creators or the nature of art’s relationship with its audience, but Liyana is a unique experience that capitalizes on those themes to great effect. Its subjects are children whom we may not have heard the stories of otherwise, and the fruits of their creative labors are plentiful in more ways than one.