'Liyana' Weaves a Stunning Folk Tale From Trauma

The visually innovative documentary is a testament to the healing power of storytelling.

There has been a lot of conversation lately about what it means to make art from trauma. From films to paintings to stand-up comedy sets, the past year has seen an abundance of works that explore and attempt to cope with traumatic experiences. In this timely vein, the documentary Liyana also considers the artistic healing of trauma, weaving the difficult lives of Swazi orphans into a stunning original folk tale.

In their feature directorial debut, veteran cinematographers Aaron and Amanda Kopp (best known for shooting The Hunting Ground) forge a remarkable vision of tragedy and hope. The Kopps wisely hand the narration over to five orphaned children in Swaziland, where the story of Liyana is born. In giving the children narrative agency, Liyana steers clear of didacticism and pity-mongering; these Swazi orphans do not ask for our sympathy but instead earn our empathy.

The film gracefully tells two parallel stories: the journey of five children, who discover power in storytelling from their remote orphanage, and the journey of Liyana, who discovers her own inner strength on a treacherous rescue mission. Liyana seamlessly transitions between these worlds of reality and fantasy. These dual threads intertwine to paint a rich portrait of life in an African nation marred by poverty, violence, and the highest infection rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, leaving over 200,000 children orphaned.

From the confines of a storytelling workshop, the children craft the enrapturing tale of Liyana, an orphan like them, who must trek across Swaziland to rescue her younger brothers from kidnappers. Like Athena, Liyana springs fully formed from these children’s minds, and watching her come to life is as thrilling as it is moving. They create her face from magazine cutouts, paint her stick-and-mud house, and sketch her companion cow. In birthing Liyana, these orphans create something from nothing, beauty from adversity.

The children infuse much of their own lives into Liyana’s story. She’s an orphan, too. The hut where she lives resembles theirs. Her story deals squarely with life and death because the children are well acquainted with those kinds of stakes. The final narrative that emerges from the workshop is no fairy tale; the children’s imaginations take us to a seedy nightclub, a violent home invasion, a brutal battery, and kidnapping. We are confronted with issues of hunger, parental death, human trafficking, abuse, AIDS, and alcoholism—all issues that these orphaned children have bravely but unwillingly confronted themselves.

Children like Sibusiso and Zweli are lively, animated narrators, taking us through Liyana’s story with sincerity and verve. They deliver Liyana’s dialogue, manifest her movements, and reveal her inner thoughts, all with an energy and emotional authenticity that lend warmth and power to the film.

Liyana also packs a distinct visual punch. The Kopps’ cinematographic roots shine through, with richly colored and well-composed shots of Swaziland’s natural beauty. Then, of course, there is the incredible work of art director and animation artist Shofela Coker. A Nigerian artist based in San Diego, Coker truly brings Liyana’s story to life with gorgeous, textured animation painted with kaleidoscopic colors. Coker’s artwork is integral to the film’s singularity. Liyana‘s animated portions render Liyana as a character, make her story immersive, and elevate the visual impact of the documentary as a whole.

Apart from Liyana, I’d argue the documentary’s true hero is Gcina Mhophe, the acclaimed South African storyteller who leads the children’s storytelling workshop. It is Mhophe who facilitates the children’s artistic journey. With poise and gravitas, Mhophe guides the children through every step of the storytelling process, from the fleshing out of Liyana’s character to setting up obstacles for her throughout her journey. In the midst of their brainstorms, she draws inventive ideas and heartfelt confessions from the children.

Mhophe provides profound insight into the power of storytelling for her students. “These children have experienced immense suffering at a young age,” she says. “Working with a fictional character allows the child to delve into places that you’ve covered and stored away.” Her voice is deep and beautiful, and she tells the children that when it comes to the course of Liyana’s story, “You will decide.” Commanding and compassionate at once, Mhophe’s confidence in the children’s artistic agency and the trust she places in them are deeply moving.

At just an hour and fourteen minutes, Liyana is an economical work of art and empathy. Its short runtime maximizes its emotional punch. The film concludes with the children’s own touching meditations on the relationship between art and trauma. We’ve truly gotten to know these children as people; they’ve told us about the deaths of their parents, we’ve sat and watched as they are tested for HIV, and we’ve joined them at their modest dinner table. So when it’s time for them to reflect on their individual artistic journeys, it resonates both thematically and personally:

“Liyana is strong. I am also strong. I want to write a nice story: my life. I’m going to write it myself, and I’m the one who’s going to decide how it ends,” Nomcebo, an orphaned girl, tells us, a heartening and hopeful self-assurance illuminating her voice.

Liyana elegantly demonstrates the power of both nonfiction and fiction storytelling. Nonfiction — that is, documentary — can illuminate unfamiliar worlds and lives, revealing alternate realities and shrinking the distance between us. Fiction, on the other hand, can imagine new people and places to grasp our present moment and draw out shared truths. Liyana does both with visual flair, earnest intention, and a dedication to dignity.