Liyana is two films in one, each unfolding with subtlety, sensitivity and strength thanks to the sterling documentarian instincts of filmmakers Aaron and Amanda Kopp and 2017’s best animated work so far with storyboards and 3D renderings from artist Shofela Coker.

In Swaziland, more than 25% of adults have tested positive for HIV. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children are orphaned after their parents or caretakers die. Liyana opens as storyteller Gcina Mclophe leads a workshop at one Swaziland orphanage, encouraging youth to channel the abuse, alcoholism, disease and violence they’ve seen into their own tales — a sort of tabula rasa on which to transpose their trauma and address it in a healthy, productive way.

“Pictures and words,” Mclophe says. “No right or wrong answers. Only good ideas.”

Half of the film shows us life on the orphanage as the children both create their stories and complete their daily tasks, vividly rendered by the Kopps’ cameras in terms of Swaziland’s natural beauty and heart-wrenching worry for its youngest inhabitants. An HIV test for one character puts us in the agonized headspace of all participants – child, caregiver and clinician.

The other half marries Coker’s work to five orphans’ narration for their story about the title character — a Swaziland girl who survives an abusive father, a mother’s death and the abduction of her twin brothers before embarking on an epic journey to save her siblings. Aided by a beloved bull sidekick, Liyana does battle with crocodiles, hyenas and other monsters (both supernatural and human) on her journey. Metaphors of crossed Rubicons in childhood abound.

Coker’s storyboards spring to life with both vibrant movement and patient nuance, ebbing and flowing like any folk tale and abetted by the orphans’ confident narration and creative sound effects. It’s a seamless combination of handmade marvel and professional polish; the film is partially produced by Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Walt Disney co-founder Roy, but utterly lacking in any sort of commercial exploitation.

Instead, our attention in the animation, as it is in live-action, is drawn to musculature of the young, but already oft-burdened and strong, backs of survivors. And we smile with the children during their wildly exuberant imitations of thunder, animals and monsters.

“It’s sad, but you just don’t keep it in mind and move on,” says one orphan. Certainly, Liyana’s story takes the shape of their own justice sought for abuse — and all of the loss and violence reflected therein. But it also reflects hope, opportunity and the community they’ve formed for themselves — and that the bonds of chosen family are sometimes less easily broken than those formed by blood.

You might wonder about statistics for how effective this tactic has been or how the other children we don’t see feel about the direction Liyana’s story takes. But then it sinks in that this is just a Liyana story, not the Liyana story — that similar trials, tribulations and redemptions await other Liyanas beyond other hills, rivers, mountains and caves. The underscored triumph, of course, is that it gets children thinking beyond their own confines of Swaziland society and individual self-esteem.

A wondrous accomplishment perched between the click of the light and the start of the dream, Liyana is one of 2017’s best documentaries.


Liyana is a Documentary Feature Finalist at the 2017 Heartland Film Festival and will be presented at:

  • 8 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 19 at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
  • 3:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 20 at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 21 at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • 1 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 22 at AMC Castleton Square 14

Tickets are available at, by calling 1-866-HFF-1010 or at the box office at the time of the screening. 

Directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp will be in attendance at the festival.