Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The Kopps' film provides insights into the fundamental nature of storytelling, its psychological relevance and its importance in intellectual development."

Liyana is brave. Liyana is clever. Liyana is responsible for her family because her parents have died after contracting HIV. When their home are attacked by robbers, what will she do?

This might sound like a bit much for a children's story but it's absolutely on point for the Swazi orphans creating this tale. With the help of their teacher/support worker, Gcina Mhlophe, they are drawing on their own experiences and knowledge of the world to create a story, using collage materials to determine how key characters and scenes appear. This documentary details their work and, thanks to Shofela Coker's brilliant animation, lets us see the story itself as it unfolds.

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One of the first things that stands out about these kids is how good they are at collaborative work. Rather than competing for attention, they're keen to pick up one another's ideas and easily reach agreement about different aspects of the story. Fundamentals of story structure are introduced along the way but they already have a keen idea of the logic of folk tales and find this easy to combine with realistic aspects of life as they know it, from disease (one quarter of all adults in Swaziland are HIV positive, with little available in the way of treatment) to child abuse and kidnap. Mhlophe explains how exploring these themes within the controlled space of fiction can help them to manage their own trauma, but it's not so much what openly distresses them as what they take for granted that makes an impression on the viewer.

There are more familiar storybook elements here too. Crocodiles, a harsh desert, a fearsome monster. Children who have probably never seen the sea imagine how enjoyable it must be to lounge around on the beach. The importance of friendship is emphasised, as is the need to be resourceful when you're too small to fight as an adult might. through the process the children come to think of themselves in a different way. Telling a story gives them a sense that they could control the narratives of their own lives.

By taking subjects who are so new to creative work, the Kopps' film provides insights into the fundamental nature of storytelling, its psychological relevance and its importance in intellectual development. Despite everything they've been through the children are bright and engaging, becoming increasingly impassioned about their work as it develops. Although the documentary is aimed at adults, it has a universal quality that kids all around the world will engage with, giving them the chance to think about how others' lives differ from their own and what they have in common.

Sweetly entertaining despite the horrors it hints at, Liyana is a snapshot of a larger story with plenty of potential for a happy ending.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2018
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Five orphaned children create a story which is realised in animated form.

Director: Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp

Starring: Gcina Mhlophe

Year: 2017

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: Swaziland, Qatar, US

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