The tradition of oral storytelling is an ancient and rich one, with folk and fairy tales, ghost stories, jokes, ballads, urban legends, proverbs or wise sayings, and mythologies – as well as history, lore and law – passed from generation to generation without being written down.
In the multiple award-winning film Liyana, now streaming on Showmax, this custom finds itself translated to the screen, and at the same time, it combines storytelling styles into a genre-bending documentary. Interviews with Aids orphans in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) are interwoven with animations to present the tale of a young girl who is incredibly strong and brave.
The children are guided by South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope, who gently coaxes the narrative out of them, through ideas, poems and drawings which are informed by their own personal experiences. Like them, Liyana is orphaned – her parents dying from HIV/Aids; Eswatini has shockingly high statistics for this. A traumatic incident at their orphanage a few months earlier prompts them to include the plot development of three robbers arriving in the dead of night and stealing Liyana’s young twin brothers.
At the behest of her Gogo (grandmother), Liyana sets out on a dangerous quest to rescue them, crossing rivers and deserts, with a helpful bull for company and support. The narrators take our heroine into a seemingly hopeless situation where it seems like all has been in vain, but they’re not going to let it end that way.
It’s astonishing and heartbreaking that these children are able to create such a detailed picture of life’s harsh realities – such as an alcoholic father who beats Liyana, then goes into town to get drunk and fool around with various women, ultimately leading to his demise and that of his wife – but at the same time, the positivity, hope and sheer determination to write their own stories, with the endings of their choice, are a triumph.
Eight years in the making, the documentary footage of the children – their one-on-one screen time as well as their daily life – mirrors the animation segments in a beautifully evocative way, stitching these elements flawlessly together. Using a rough storyboard and the children’s illustrations, Nigerian animator Shofela Coker created the stunning animated artwork. The artistic style he chose is reminiscent of a children’s book, which blends static but 3D-sculpted characters with subtly shifting 2D backdrops, giving it a dreamy, almost innocent quality which matches the storytelling theme.
“This ‘breathing painting’ style lends a picture-book quality to their tale while still nodding to the fluidity and porousness of the oral tradition,” said Guy Lodge at Variety.
Shaped by children, Liyana is a film that can be watched by their peers but also enjoyed by adults. The directorial debut of Swaziland-born and raised Aaron Kopp, who shot the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face and the Oscar-nominated The Hunting Ground, the documentary is executive produced by Emmy winner Thandie Newton (Westworld), produced by Oscar winner Daniel Junge (Saving Face), and skillfully edited by Davis Coombe (Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice).
Critically acclaimed, Liyana has played at festivals around the world, and has won 35 jury and audience awards so far. It’s a must-watch for anyone who needs to be reminded there is still good in the world. Stream it now on Showmax.