Leah Cowling reviews ‘Liyana’, which showed at the Filmhouse as part of the ‘Africa in Motion’ film festival.

Liyana is a film of two beautifully balanced halves. Screen time is split between shots of an animated fictional story and documentary footage of the story’s creation.

The animation tells the story of Liyana, a young Swazi girl who loses both of her parents to AIDS, and then loses her two twin brothers to kidnappers. Encouraged by her grandmother, Liyana embarks on a perilous journey to rescue her brothers from their kidnappers. On the way, Liyana must battle fearsome beasts and face hunger and exhaustion, with her faithful bull as her only companion.

Nigerian-born visual artist Shofela Coker creates an animation of stunning detail; the images are rich with colour and texture. The story is a classic tale of a heroic protagonist on a treacherous journey. As an animation alone, this story would be a gripping and uplifting children’s story, but it is its origins which deepen its meaning.

Documentary footage of the creation of Liyana’s story is interwoven with the story itself. In the form of one-on-one interviews and footage of story-telling workshops, the audience gains insight into a unique kind of story-telling therapy. Sibusiso, Zweli, Phumlani, Nomcebo, Mkhuleko, a group of (mostly male) children at Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha home for orphans, are guided by South African author and story-teller Gcina Mhlophe to create a story which in many ways mirrors their own experiences of life in Swaziland.

Liyana is a story made by children, but its central themes are far from typical for a children’s story. Liyana experiences first-hand the traumas of alcoholism, rape, kidnapping and AIDS. The film illuminates the harsh reality of living in a country in which 25% of adults in Swaziland have HIV.

In the Q&A which followed the Filmhouse screening of Liyana, the directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp pointed out that the creators of Liyana may not have been entirely aware of the complexity of the metaphors in their own story. While this may be true of some of the film’s more subtle meaning, the children who created the story seem to be aware of the relevance of gender in Swaziland. In the Q&A, Aaron retold the response to a question which was asked to the children at the Los Angeles world premiere of Liyana. The children were asked why they chose a female protagonist for their story, in light of the fact that the 11 year old age group at the time of filming was predominantly male. In response, one of the boys answered that it made sense, because most of the struggles in Africa are faced by women.

Liyana represents an 8 year long labour of love, which has been condensed into 75 glorious minutes. Liyana triumphs in its conviction to avoid stereotypical portrayals of African orphans, and ultimately offers a different kind of narrative by giving Sibusiso, Zweli, Phumlani, Nomcebo, Mkhuleko a microphone with which to amplify their voices.