eSwatini: Liyana

(2017; directors: Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp; language: English and Swati; co-production with USA and Qatar)

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Liyana takes an interesting twist on the film within a film device by merging hard-hitting development documentary with a vibrantly animated children’s story. The film is partly the story of the a girl who departs on an epic hero’s journey to find and reclaim her two brothers from brutal kidnappers. It is also a live-action documentary about a group of children at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage in rural eSwatini*, who are creating and telling Liyana’s story as a way to process and discuss the traumas in their backgrounds.

* As part of his recent 50th birthday celebrations, King Mswati III decreed that the Kingdom of Swaziland would be renamed eSwatini. While I’m normally all for linguistic decolonisation, the lack of democracy in one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies does give me pause as to the legitimacy of the name change. But for lack of any argument as to why ‘Swaziland’ is better, I’ll go with the new one.

While various local film initiatives do seem to be in the works in the tiny, poverty-stricken kingdom, there aren’t a great many Swazi films to choose from as a foreign audience, even including foreign productions set and filmed there. Richard E Grant’s semi-autobiographical Wah-Wah is a notable exception, but with a solidly colonial perspective that is probably rather out of step with the average Swazi’s reality. Nor is Liyana an entirely local film, directed by Americans (although director Aaron Kopp grew up in Swaziland), Kickstarted, McArthur-granted, Abigail Disney and Thandie Newton among its executive producers, and with (the apparently ubiquitous) postproduction funding from Qatar. But Liyana is committed to showcasing Swazi stories, told (literally) by Swazis, making it the kind of film that this blog is all about.

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eSwatini has the highest rate of HIV-infection in the world, and consequently one of the lowest average life-expectancies. 200,000 children are left as orphans (in a country with a little over a million people), often with nowhere to turn for economic support or protection from abuse. The Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage is one safe harbour, established and run by the director Aaron Kopp’s family.

This set up could easily have led to a self-aggrandising development documentary about the Kopp family’s mission, but that clearly wasn’t the film that the duo wanted to make:

“Aaron: I knew we wanted to make a film about these kids. There are a lot of films about African kids that are exploitative and they profit from the suffering and the poverty. These kids were our friends and we wanted to make a film that didn’t make them feel vulnerable, embarrassed or any way shameful. We wanted to tell their story in a way that wouldn’t expose them.

Amanda: It’s about them.

Aaron: We wanted to put them in the driving seat because we knew they would take us on a wild ride.”

By structuring the film around a storytelling workshop, the subjects of the documentary are able to retain a level of ownership over how their stories are told. With some exceptions, it is generally the narrative choices the children make that bear witness to their experiences, allowing for a safe distancing between the traumas implied and any individual child’s background. It also allows a certain self-affirmation from the kids themselves, with storytelling becoming a metaphor for self-determination. In the words of the one of the kids: “Sometimes it’s more difficult to live your life than writing a story. But I am the storyteller, I want my story to end well.”

Under the guidance of the legendary Gcina Mhlope (South African activist, story-teller, writer and director), a narrative takes form. Mhlope leads them through the process of creating the character Liyana and her story, choosing the gender, name and look of the character (using cuttings from magazines to piece together her face), and building the story together. Nigerian-born artist Shofela Coker’s minimally animated stills illustrate the children’s lively and engaging narration, occasionally cutting to live action footage of the children’s hammy gestures and enthusiastic sound effects as they narrate a scene.

Indeed, this interplay is one of the film’s key strengths. Aaron Kopp explains, “as the children in the film tell the story, they’re energetic and charismatic, so we found that limiting the motion in the animation kept it from competing with the documentary footage of the kids.” Instead Coker created “breathing paintings”, a series of vibrantly coloured images that faithfully depict the varied Southern African landscape, and weave together the fantastical aspects of the story with mundane features of the children’s day to day lives.

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The story sees Liyana embark on a quest to recover her brothers from brutal kidnappers, proudly bearing her grandmother’s lihiya (Swazi traditional shawl) and accompanied by a white bull (the animated version of a real life bull belonging to the orphanage). Tracking the her stolen brothers across the varied Southern African terrain, the two companions traverse grassy mountains like the ones around the rural orphanage, escape crocodiles and hyenas, survive exhaustion and despair in the desert-like lowveld, and feast on mangoes in the forest. Her brave quest ends in triumph, freeing not only her brothers but all the other children kidnapped by the robbers, as well as the captive monster used to terrorise them (a move which seals the doom of the robbers when the unchained beast turns on them).

The fact that it is the children’s own story renders powerful aspects of the narrative that could otherwise seem overdone. As one of the kids puts it, “not everything is ok in Liyana’s family”, and this is putting it mildly. Even before her adventure begins, pre-teen Liyana has suffered poverty (her clay and stick hut with its thatched roof is described as “a poor house”), abusive alcoholism and paternal neglect, her parents dying of HIV, and rape. If told from a outsider’s view, this could come off as lip-service to a shopping list of “African problems” like that in B’ella, but coming from the children it instead bears a poignant witness to their collective backgrounds.

Significantly, this is however background, a fact of life, but not defining of Liyana nor integral to her hero’s journey. Once her circumstances are established, Liyana’s quest becomes one of perseverance, care, and community building as she returns home with all the rescued orphans to form a new family. The message, in the children’s words, is: “overcome fear, hold on to hope. Keep going.” Again, what could have been a trite cliché instead “reverberates with the hard-won celebratory ring of firsthand experience,” as reviewer Sheri Lynden puts it.

The children are also responsible for the moments of occasional wackyness in Liyana’s story. I particularly liked a detour where Liyana sees the sea for the first time (eSwatini being landlocked), and her bull snorts in disgust upon discovering that seawater tastes like “salty armpits”. The kids then imagine up a kind of meta sequence where Liyana imagines an undersea realm ruled by a king and queen whose wealth and majesty are evidenced by the nice clothes they wear and the good food they eat (is this a conscious reference to the disparity between King Mswati and his impoverished populace?).

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The conceit of the children’s narrative as a metaphor for their real experiences was hammered home by inter-cutting with documentary footage from their daily life at the orphanage. Where it worked was in showing the relationship between the children’s lives and their creative process, like when a monster constructed by one of the children was shown to be a prototype for the animated one in Liyana’s story, or where Liyana’s feasting on mangoes is shown to be a favourite pastime of the children as well. But transitions via e.g. a sunset to extended footage of the children playing football or having dinner together did feel a bit forced. The sequences themselves, while underscoring the theme of home and community as vital for healing, were somewhat overlong and felt at times like padding. (I did like getting to look around the rural landscape with green and craggy hills that reminded me of my native country, but I’m not sure I needed to watch the kids go swimming, beautiful as the scenery was).

In addition to being occasionally disjointed, the documentary footage also ran the risk of undermining the wise choice to let the children’s speak for themselves about their experiences via their constructed narrative. At one point the film follows the children to an HIV-clinic where they receive their medicine, and one young boy, Thulani, is being tested. The kindly doctor asks him where he lives, to which the frightened boy responds “Home”. It’s a nail-biting sequence waiting for the results, and an undeniably cute and thematic answer from the child, but did seem to me like the film had strayed into the kind of exposure that the film-makers claimed to want to avoid (even if the test results did come back negative).

On balance, however, I think the film-makers succeeded in creating an engaging and beautiful film. Its hybrid animation-documentary format puts the warmth and self-determination of its subjects at the centre without pulling any punches about the acute situation for many Swazi children. The film doesn’t have anything directly to say about the adult world in eSwatini, rife with extreme inequality and human rights abuses, but they are arguably present in some sense as an underlying cause of the children’s situation. Instead, the film is firmly from the children’s perspective – children who have already borne a lifetime of suffering, but who still find pleasure and hope in the world.

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