It is through oral storytelling that most key folk tales, myths and histories across African culture have been passed and preserved through the generations. It is by tapping into this rich tradition, meanwhile, that “Liyana” makes authentic a device that might otherwise have seemed cutesy: leaving half its story in the hands, or rather mouths, of five young Swazi orphans, as they collectively weave an epic quest narrative about a resilient girl trying to reunite her family against daunting odds. The rest of Aaron and Amanda Kopp’s short but stout-hearted documentary colors in the challenging reality that shapes the children’s fiction — foremost among them the AIDS epidemic that continues to blight the tiny nation of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland).
“Liyana” uses vibrantly distinctive animation to illustrate the kids’ ongoing, imaginative saga: Fusing static but 3D-sculpted characters with subtly shifting 2D backdrops, this “breathing painting” style lends a picture-book quality to their tale while still nodding to the fluidity and porousness of the oral tradition. Designed by Nigerian-born visual artist Shofela Coker, these visuals act in vivid contrast to the unadorned vérité of passages depicting storytelling sessions and daily routines at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage, where our young narrators reside. Miserablism isn’t what the Kopps are after, though, and a predominance of sunshine and small, smiling faces in its articulation of tough times has understandably made this summer-bright doc a hit on the festival circuit.
A nugget-shaped slip of a kingdom landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, eSwatini (renamed only this year by reigning monarch King Mswati III) has been granted few big-screen showcases over the years. That’s all the more reason to welcome “Liyana,” which spotlights verdant natural beauty without overly romanticising the problems of an impoverished country with the world’s highest HIV infection rate. (That U.S.-based Aaron Kopp, also responsible for the film’s clean cutting and camerawork, is Swazi born and raised is felt in the film’s unforced conviction.) That grim HIV statistic accounts for many of the orphans at Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha, and they bear it with stoic acceptance: One of the film’s most quietly heart-clutching scenes, shot with a tender, calm interest in community process, sees a young boy being tested for the virus at a local clinic, while other diagnosed children dutifully collect their medication.
Yet happily industrious harmony prevails at the farm-based orphanage, where the kids variously chip in to work the land and tend the livestock. When renowned South African actress and activist Gcina Mhlophe arrives to workshop a story with the children, however, individual tragedies and traumas emerge in her sessions with the five orphans carrying the film. Together they invent a fierce, doughty girl — the eponymous Liyana — as a kind of proxy protagonist, whose struggles clearly reflect their own. Orphaned herself when her abusive father dies from AIDS, Liyana is left bereft when her younger twin brothers are abducted by traffickers; accompanied by her trusty bull, she sets out to find them. This gritty contemporary setup eventually gives way to a solo rescue narrative, rife with human and animal obstacles, that hinges on more folkloric, sometimes even fairytale-like, conventions.
It’s a simple but stirring tale, lent character by the children’s endearingly eager telling and atmospheric texture by Coker’s inspired visual interpretation. Working in deep, varied earth tones against skies of blazing blue or coral, the animation is angular and stylized in a way that cleverly recalls indigenous rock art on occasion; contrasting shots of the boys’ own supplementary artwork extend the idea of a story filtered through multiple imaginations in the African way, never becoming calcified in the process. Though “Liyana” will play limited arthouse and community venues before landing on digital platforms next year, it’s really a film for enterprising, discussion-inclined parents and teachers to share with their own young ones, passing the story on in the process.