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Actress Thandie Newton Turns to Producing for Animated-Live Action Documentary ‘Liyana’

Her debut effort wins best documentary award at Los Angeles Film Festival

Actress Thandie Newton, who took home a supporting actress BAFTA for the Oscar-winning film “Crash” and was nominated for a Golden Globe for HBO’s “Westworld,” has taken on the role of executive producer with “Liyana,” a hybrid animation and live-action documentary from Emmy-nominated directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp. The doc premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, where it won the award for best documentary.

The film is about a girl from Swaziland who tries to rescue her young twin brothers from kidnappers; it was inspired by the dark memories of orphaned Swazi children who tell the story to South African author Gcina Mhlophe, who also appears in the film.

Newton’s association with the project springs from her African roots; the British-born actress’s mother is from Zimbabwe. But assembling the story for the screen was challenging, and the final form came together during the editing.

“It’s a bit like cooking,” says Aaron Kopp. “The balance of different ingredients and timing are important, and in our case it involved lots of experimentation. Because we didn’t have examples of other films that were structured in this way, we had to discover as we went. We revised the edit over and over.”

The Kopps were aided by documentary editor Davis Coombe, whose credits include Sundance darlings “Casting JonBenet” and “Chasing Coral,” both acquired by Netflix.

Coombe, the Kopps say, stepped in as the voice of reason at key moments throughout the process. “It’s a film that’s not easily categorized,” explains Aaron Kopp. “It challenges people’s expectations of what a documentary should be, and we came to embrace this as a defining characteristic of the film.”

For Newton — a passionate supporter of stories from people who don’t have the resources to tell them and a longtime admirer of Mhlophe’s work — the project marks her first role behind the camera.

“There’s definitely a shift that’s happened in my life,” she tells Variety, “and it doesn’t feel like too much of a conscious decision.  … I think it has a lot to do with being older and seeking to take the reins as opposed to just being corralled.”

Newton has two other scripts in the works and says she’s looking to develop more projects. She adds that over the past few years, she has begun hosting screenings and lending her celebrity to further the careers of others. For example, she helped Pakistani journalist-filmmaker and women’s rights activist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in her Oscar campaigns for “Saving Face” and “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.”

For Aaron Kopp, who grew up in Swaziland, this story was a natural fit. His wife and creative partner, Amanda, has known the children in the film since many were toddlers, and the filmmakers were eager to help Africans tell their own stories and express their voices. “From day one,” he says, “we stated that no matter how the film turned out, we wanted the process of creating it to be beneficial to the kids themselves.”

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