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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Ethiopia: Lamb

(2015; writer/director: Yared Zeleke; language: Amharic; co-production with France, Germany, Norway and Qatar)

Ephraïm and Chuni are best friends – Chuni is the titular lamb (grown into a teenage sheep), and Ephraïm (Rediat Amare) a boy desperately in need of stability and companionship. His mother has died in the latest drought, and his father has moved to Addis Ababa to look for work, leaving Ephraïm with impoverished relatives in a distant part of the country. His great aunt is imposing but kindly (and armed with her own personal whip called ‘the oncoming storm’ or something like that), but his father’s cousin Solomon (Surafel Teka) is disappointed in Ephraïm’s talent for cooking rather than farming – the former being women’s work, and a skill inherited from Ephraïm’s mother. To add to the tension, Solomon’s wife Azeb (Rahel Teshome) is consumed with concern for her sickly and undernourished daughter, and irritated by her stepdaughter Tsion’s (Kidist Siyum) predilection for reading instead of housework and finding a husband. Matters come to a head when it is decided that the menu for the upcoming religious celebration will prominently feature lamb…

Lamb felt like an obvious choice, as the first Ethiopian film to screen at Cannes and having garnered positive reviews internationally. Although not new to cinema, the country has struggled to maintain and strengthen the industry in the face of censorship under the military dictatorship and a perpetual lack of resources. Although a couple of recent films have attained international reach, Lamb looked like the one I would most enjoy. The aim of writer/director Zeleke to show off the splendour of even the most impoverished Ethiopian lifestyles also felt like a good fit for the intentions of this blog. (In fact, the lack of positive portrayals of Ethiopia internationally apparently posed another challenge to making the film – people were wary of appearing it!) In Zeleke’s words:

Ethiopians can be afraid of the camera because they know the country doesn’t have a good image abroad because of the famine and the poverty. It’s as if the only thing the world knows about it is its worst aspects… Despite the dictatorship and war and famine and poverty — I had even grown up in a slum — I still feel I had a fairy-tale childhood. There was a lot of love and good food and colorful characters and incredible Christian festivities that I’d grown up with… In Ethiopia, there is no colonial legacy. The culture is untouched. It’s a dream for a filmmaker and storyteller. Beauty and heartache, it’s there.

And indeed it all is there, so thoroughly and lovingly captured by the filmmakers that others have described Lamb as an ethnography from the inside (although I found one reviewer who questioned the script’s naturalism). The camera luxuriates in the rural setting, glorying in the dramatic hills and the intimate lives of their inhabitants, human and non-human alike. Lamb allows the viewer time to acclimatise, to study its protagonists’ fashions, hairstyles, farming tools, and religious practices. To jostle with them in dusty markets and ride buses with sheep tied to the roof. To learn the recipe for sambusas, and climb through an otherworldly forest to reach a jaw-dropping mountaintop.

But it’s also a film concerned with modern problems and Ethiopia’s place in global systems, and in particular how drought and financial vulnerability affects subsistence farmers. Ephraïm’s brusque aunt Azeb becomes more relatable when you realise she is witnessing her child literally starve to death, and his uncle’s decision to eat Chuni is also rendered less callous (spoiler alert: the lamb lives). The film is set in the droughts of the 1980s, and the situation is not necessarily that much better today. According to Zeleke:

Ethiopia is experiencing a changing climate. There is a debate in some parts of the United States, but here in Ethiopia it’s a reality. 85% are still farmers. So it’s not even a debate, it’s a reality. Our country was once very forested, very green. Today it’s mostly deforested, but outside of that, the pollution from wealthier countries is causing havoc on the lives of farmers here.

In the film, the main hope for the future comes from Tsion, already educating herself about methods to improve her family and her country’s lot. It was nice to see local scientists featured in her reading material, highlighting the level of knowledge and drive that exists in the country. Her father, however, is less interested in the nutritional equivalence of lentils to meat or the fertilising properties of urine, and so Tsion rejects her prescribed future as a farmer’s bride and runs off to find her way to a higher education.

Her story could have been a film in itself, but perhaps less simple, and therefore less effective.The true strength of the film is the universal appeal of a well-executed classic children’s narrative – the lonely child banished to imposing and vaguely hostile relatives, trying to find his place in the world. It succeeds in establishing a child’s perspective in a way that Azerbaijan’s Buta (for example) failed to do, partly thanks to the sympathetic performance of its young star, and partly because it takes the time to inhabit a child’s sense of wonder, and their ambiguous integration into the adult world, conveyed with scintillating cinematography by Josée Deshaie. One of my favourite scenes was of Ephraïm alone on top of a ‘magic’ mountain, where you could feel him letting his spirits loose into the vast green expanse beyond and the grass and untouched earth beneath him – a release from the stifling atmosphere of his new home and a place to properly mourn his mother.

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For me, the film was at its weakest when it deviated from the focus on Ephraïm or his family, and veered too far into showing off the positives of Ethiopia to a foreign audience. For instance, several reviewers have focussed on the religious diversity and harmony depicted at certain times in the film: Ephraïm is half-Jewish through his mother, which  reviewers point out doesn’t seem to cause any trouble for his Christian relatives, and he also has a friendly interaction with a young Muslim girl. These references were few, however, and felt shoehorned in more as a way to show off the absence of religious conflict in Ethiopia than as something of relevance to the film’s characters or narrative.

The temptation to cover everything is perhaps a common problem for pioneering film-makers from ‘developing’ countries. If yours is one of the first films about the country to be screen internationally, it’s natural to want to declaim the positives while also highlighting problems caused by global inequalities. But unlike Malawi’s B’ella, which suffered hugely from this, Lamb manages largely to stick with its central story – the friendship between boy and sheep in a majestic natural setting. (We’re unlikely to see a similar topic from Zeleke in the future – he has apparently vowed never to work with an animal again).

Even if Lamb is clearly targeting a foreign audience, that didn’t stop me (a foreign audience, after all) from enjoying it, and I did learn a fair bit about Ethiopia in terms of geography, farming practices, religious diversity, gender roles, cooking, and international relations. I also learned that you can take anything on a bus in rural Ethiopia. Given the size of the country and the extent of its history, I certainly hope there will be more Ethiopian cinema to come.

Azerbaijan: Buta

(2011, dir: Ilgar Najaf; language: Azerbaijani)

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Buta is a fable-like drama film about a lonely little orphan boy called Buta (Rafig Guliyev) and the remote village where he lives. Over the course of the film, Buta makes friends with an old man who used to be in love with his grandmother, deals with bullies, discovers what a rainbow is and finds proof that the Earth is round. Sub-plots include a romance between a city-slicker salesman and a pretty local teenager, and Buta’s grandmother weaving an epic carpet. I chose it from a not very substantial pool of candidates because someone had faith enough in it to put if forward as Azerbaijan’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and while not nominated for the Oscar it did win the prize for Best Children’s Feature Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. So, technically, an award-winning Azerbaijani film.

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While the summary given above may be pretty much what happens in the film, one could say that the film is really about buta – the beloved paisley motif which is an unofficial symbol of Azerbaijan. Apparently, the design can represent either an almond, a bud, family life or love, among other things. The symbol of the buta runs throughout the film, metaphorically drawing together the various threads that don’t otherwise really have a lot to do with one another – that the boy Buta grows into himself; that the old soap-merchant he befriends once loved and lost Buta’s grandmother; that a soap-merchant from the city arrives and falls for a local girl, who does marry him. The symbol also runs literally throughout the film: the film is called Buta, the boy is called Buta, the village is sometimes called Buta, the boy’s grandmother and Goncha the pretty local girl are weaving huge carpets with central buta designs, the grandmother has a buta-shaped birthmark and sings songs about buta while she weaves, and Buta – inspired by his grandmother – hauls stones to the top of a nearby hill to make his own design in the shape of a (you guessed it!) buta.

There were, in other words, a whole lot of butas. Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, but the sheer load of butas felt less like a beautifully woven carpet with flowing motifs, and more like someone was hitting me over the head with a buta-shaped hammer. I understand that the film acts as a modern-day fable, a story form which traditionally often involves a lot of repetition, but it really felt like overkill. And while the metaphor of the buta, to the extent that I understood it from the introduction, did sort of work to draw together the somewhat disparate threads of the film’s narrative, there were others that seemed out of place – part of the film’s climax [SPOILERS!!] involves the old soap merchant getting the village’s mill going again, and then promptly dying. Afterwards, Buta sees his first rainbow, the curve of which providing him with the evidence he sought that the world was round(?!). How these fit in with the story, such as it was, or the film’s symbolism, was not immediately obvious to me at least. I think if the film had done a better job of showing, rather than telling (in the form of repeated butas), it might have earned the adjective it seemed to aiming for: “lyrical”.

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Instead, unfortunately, the adjectives that spring to mind are “boring” and “twee”. At only a little over an hour and a half long, the pace of the film was so slow that it took me two fidgety sittings to get through, and I only continued watching because of this blog. The pacing was not helped by the stilted and phony performances from the child actors, and the contrived and cliched folk wisdom dialogue spouted by the village elders. Charm is key for films of this genre, and what charm Buta has to offer is gratingly forced. Of course, this may be a case of something being lost in translation, but it didn’t do anything for me in any case. Even less charming was the distressing violence carried out onscreen by the children. I mean, I’ve seen heaps of children’s films that involve bullies, but often the child-on-child violence is only implied, is off-screen, or you at least don’t see the blows fall. But within the first 10 minutes we see the (albino? or at the very least oddly blond in comparison to his sister) bully ringleader Azim just rock up and slap his tiny sister hard in the face, and it goes on from there.

In what may turn out to be a trend for the films reviewed in this project, the actual star of the film was the beautiful landscape of rural Azerbaijan, with wide and rocky river valleys, rugged hills and grassy plains. The film was sponsored by the Azerbaijani tourism board, and I can imagine that they are probably very happy with it. It also served as something of a celebration of rural Azerbaijani life – although the villagers in the film didn’t have a lot, they had their traditions and customs and vocally defended them against any criticism from the city-slicker. So, while I may not have enjoyed the film overmuch, I did in any case learn a lot about the look and feel of rural Azerbaijan – and a whole lot about buta.

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One further point of interest for me was the film’s echo of Albanian film Slogans previously reviewed here – a lot of the landscape looked similar (despite Albania and Azerbaijan being separated by Turkey and the whole Caspian sea), but especially the motif of children carrying stones up a hill to construct a design connected with their village’s identity. Coincidence, or is this a common thing in Eastern Europe?