The power of imagination and storytelling, wonderfully realised in this documentary-animation hybrid.
It might be a little too early to make a call on the best documentary at this year’s Oscars, but based on this debut film from Aaron & Amanda Kopp, you might just want to put an outside bet on Liyana.
A documentary with a difference, Liyana tells the story of a group of orphans in Swaziland who in turn, together form and tell the story of the courageous ‘Liyana’. The striking mix of animation and documentary footage is wonderfully executed, a little reminiscent of the 2016 animated documentary Tower, but an altogether less harrowing experience.
That is not to say Liyana is a sanitised version of events though, and the young storytellers never shy away from the horrors and nightmarish things that have happened to them in the past. Projecting their own experiences, as well as their wonderful unbounded imaginations into the story of Liyana, the film is a stirring, mesmerising, and utterly spell-binding movie experience. You’ll find yourself hanging on the every word of the children, their charming uninhibited style of storytelling being just one of the highlights.
It may be told in a child-like way, and bolstered by its animated style, but Liyana is a very real story, powerfully emotive in places, yet charming and funny in others as well; a wonderful reflection of the real stories of our narrators. Whilst drawing from their own experiences, the kids also include some ravenous crocodiles and a very unhappy monster in their tale, and their enthusiastic explanations, exaggerated gestures, and hilarious impressions, are infectious.
There is a moment towards the end of this film however which truly sets it apart. Liyana’s story reaches a turning point, a dark place where it could easily end there in sadness and despair. We cut back to the kids, wise beyond their years saying that “It’s more difficult to live your life than writing a story”, and that sometimes there just isn’t any hope. As an audience, we are desperately willing both Liyana’s story, and these kids’ stories, to have a happy ending. Challenging the conventions of a “kids story” is incredibly moving, but that glimmer of hope never quite fades. For these children, whilst they may have experienced some truly dark and despairing moments, they have the power, the will, and the ability to turn their lives around. This notion is embodied when one of the kids says “I am the storyteller”.
This moment of subtle empowerment is where the film truly resonates; the kids have been shaping Liyana’s story from the very start, and they realise also that they have the power to write their own life stories. The powerful catharsis of storytelling, and the determination and resilience of the children is what makes Liyana so captivating, and it is unlikely that you’ll see another documentary quite like this one.
Adventurous, bright, full of imagination, yet also stirring, devastating and painfully realistic, Liyana is an unbelievably accomplished first directorial effort and easily one of the best films of the year so far.