Liyana

Children are often characterized as helplessly subject to circumstances beyond their control. Documentary films about children don’t often go beyond empathy, especially when the children are orphans in southern Africa.

But, that is the magic of Liyana, a hybrid animated-verité documentary film rooted in dignity and a spectacular respect for childhood.  Liyana is uniquely crafted at the intersection of innovative art and graceful social impact.

It elegantly weaves together imagination and reality. As the film unfolded, I realized that I was watching a rare and brilliant moment when, against all odds, a child's powerless vulnerability blooms into boundless self-determination and they become self-aware masters of their own journey.

With the help of a storyteller and facilitator, Gcina Mhlophe, the children work together to design a character from their imagination and name her Liyana. They craft an epic journey for Liyana — deciding her circumstances, her suffering, her joy, her family — all the while, unconsciously filtering their own personal stories into hers. The film dances between Liyana’s animated odyssey to save her twin brothers, and verité moments and interviews of the children’s day-to-day reality in an orphanage.  It’s an ode to the therapeutic power of personal storytelling as an impactful tool that changes the course of one's identity, choices, and thus, our world.

The filmmakers cleverly merged the cinematic animation of Liyana’s story with the children’s narration and personal reflections. Almost the entire film is told by children themselves -- you rarely hear an adult speak.  As a former elementary school teacher, I loved this because it gave them the voice and agency that’s often left out of their own narratives. It also pushes the boundaries of self determination in film.

“I wanted to make a film they would be proud of,”

said Aaron Kopp, the co-director with Amanda Kopp. "[The childrens'] response to the film was the main thing for us."

They flew the kids to the world premiere at the L.A. Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. They also established a college fund for the kids, and hope to create a graphic novel of Liyana’s journey.

Liyana is a remarkable film. I hope it rocks the documentary film world and inspires filmmakers to allow children, and people who are often depicted as vulnerable, to tell their own stories with dignity and pride, rather than pity. As one of the children in the film confidently declares,

"I decide how my story ends." 

Telling stories this way has a deep impact in the world. To quote a South African writer, Sandisile Tshuma

"As an African in a world that fetishizes our suffering and paints us with a single brush, the way the story is told makes me feel respected, seen and heard."  

That is the most profound impact a documentary film can have, enabling you to feel seen and proud of who you are.