LIYANA (Aaron & Amanda Kopp, 2017)
Museum of the Moving Image, Bartos Screening Room
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Saturday, November 17, and Sunday, November 18, $15 ($9 ages three to seventeen), 11:00 am
Liyana is a bittersweet, heart-tugging film about the power of storytelling and the depth of the human mind and heart. In 2003, husband-and-wife filmmakers Aaron and Amanda Kopp visited the rural Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage in their native country of Swaziland. Most of the children living there lost their parents to violence or the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. A few years later, they asked South African actress, writer, and activist Gcina Mhlophe to come to the orphanage to work with the kids: Their project is for the kids to make up their own fairy tale. The boys and girls do not talk about princes and princesses, fancy balls and lush palaces. Instead, the group, primarily Phumlani, Nomcebo, Sibusiso, Mkhuleko, and Zweli, develops a tense and thrilling adventure about a young girl named Liyana who takes off with a prized bull to try to rescue her twin brothers who were captured by marauding thieves. “The kids that we are working with, they come from the very dark side of life. They’ve been hungry, they’ve been in so much pain and abused and suffering so early in life,” Mhlophe explains. “They have those images playing over and over and over in their minds. Working with a fictional character allows a child to delve into places that you’ve covered and stored away. So many of these children’s real-life experiences are going to end up on this fictional character.”
As the kids continue describing the tale in impressive depth, the Kopps, who directed, produced, and photographed the film, show them working on the orphanage farm; going to a health clinic for checkups; wandering through the gorgeous landscape as if on their own adventure; and painting, drawing, and making collages about Liyana. Nigerian visual artist Shofela Coker, who serves as art director with Amanda Kopp, brings Liyana’s story to life through compelling 3D animation that editors Davis Coombe and Aaron Kopp beautifully weave into the main narrative, which features a compelling score by South African composer Philip Miller, William Kentridge’s longtime collaborator. What’s happening in the animation often references what the children are doing and saying, forming a lovely, often subtle juxtaposition. The tale is a brutal one, as Liyana faces one frightening situation after another; the kids do not make it easy for her. But as the story goes on, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist or child specialist to see how the fictional world they are creating relates to their own lives. When they say that Liyana must “overcome fear” and “hold on to hope,” they are really talking about their own approach to daily existence. “It’s more difficult to live your life than writing a story,” one child notes, while another says, “In your own life maybe there is no hope but sometimes you need to keep pushing.” These are remarkable statements coming from such young children; clearly, they have already experienced heartbreak and terror in their brief lives, although they also burst with bright smiles. One child gets right to the point: “I want my story to end well,” he declares.
Executive produced by actress and activist Thandie Newton and winner of more than two dozen festival awards around the world, Liyana is a stunning achievement, a unique and powerful film about the human spirit even in the darkest of times. Mhlophe, who has written such books as The Snake with Seven Heads, Love Child, and Queen of the Tortoises and toured the world with her play Have You Seen Zandile?, does such a wonderful job with the kids, getting their creative juices flowing in such positive ways. It’s a joy to watch her and the children come up with a genuinely exciting tale that just happens to be layered with such meaning in a country where 25% of the adults have HIV/AIDS and there are 200,000 orphans. Liyana is screening at the Museum of the Moving Image on November 17 and 18 at 11:00 in the morning as part of the “Family Matinees” series. Don’t miss this genuine treasure of a film.