The Durban International Film Festival played host to the South African première of LIYANA, a hybrid documentary animation chronicling the experiences of a group of orphans in Swaziland. Watching this masterpiece and talking to its creators taught me a thing or two about storytelling.
How you tell a story defines you as the storyteller
It tells us about who you are and your values. LIYANA is beautiful to look at and listen to. From the gentle sunlight shimmering on the surface of a river and water glistening on the bodies of children as they emerge from it, to the hauntingly beautiful voice that mourns the tragedies and hardships that these babies endure. LIYANA is authentic. The animation by Shofela Coker is bold, vibrant and detailed. Ihiya looks like ihiya that my Swati friend wore on the day of her wedding. Uthuli on Liyana’s skin looks like uthuli on my skin after I spend a day in the villages of Digkale in South Africa or Tokwana in Zimbabwe. The detail on a chitenge at Liyana’s grandmother’s house… I could go on. Details are important and in being attentive to detail, this film demonstrates a rigor that is incredibly respectful of its subjects and audience. As an African in a world that fetishizes our suffering and paints us with a single brush, the way the story is told makes me feel respected, seen and heard. I believe that the way that the makers of Liyana tell her story shows that they are deeply empathic towards these amazing children and from talking to them I know that they consider themselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to help bring this story to the world.
Who tells a story is as important as the story
It would have been easy to simply follow the children around with cameras as they lived their day-to-day lives and then just narrate a voice over that domineers over the story like so many other documentaries we’ve seen. But Aaron and Amanda Kopp didn’t do that. They chose a more resource-intensive process of work shopping with the children and letting the real story, Liyana emerge organically. The makers chose to be facilitators and enablers, letting the children drive the narrative. With the consummate storyteller Gcina Mhlope holding their hands like a doula would a woman in labour, the children birthed Liyana in a realm of its own. The film makers recognize that these children have the right to be involved in matters concerning them and that they are capable of voicing their own experiences. “We didn’t want to exploit them,” they tell me earnestly and with that I know that this film is the result of a pure intention to create and share something magical with the children. A story about young people, by young people, Liyana is the child of the children whose life experiences informed her journey.
The important thing is to tell the story!
The children featured in LIYANA are teens now as the film was eight years in the making. During the screening there is a moment when, eyes brimming with tears, I looked behind me to gauge the reaction of the rest of the audience. Seeing the looks on their faces as they watched their younger selves on the big screen gave me life! It was a combination of joy, pride and awe. This is their story and now the world gets to be a part of it. Amazing!
LIYANA is doing the rounds at film festivals globally and I will be doing all that I can to support the team to get it shown on as many screens as possible in communities that don’t often see themselves portrayed so beautifully.