Liyana – A Swazi story told through the voices of children

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A scene from Liyana

“We were honoured that the children were willing to share their stories with us. Throughout the filmmaking process we felt a lot of responsibility to do everything we could to do their stories justice.” – Aaron Kopp

Bittersweet memories and fond imaginations of a group of young orphans from the Kingdom of Swaziland tell the tale of the award-winning African animated documentary, Liyana.

“Liyana is a story born in the imaginations of five orphaned children in the Kingdom of Swaziland. The film follows the children: Zweli, Sibusiso, Phumlani, Mkhuleko and Nomcebo, as they collaborate to tell the original tale of Liyana, a fictional character whose early life bears remarkable similarities to their own. The world that the children imagine for Liyana is brought to life in an innovative style of animated artwork. This hybrid film weaves documentary scenes together with the animated adventure,” explains Amanda Kopp, the co-producer and co-director of the film.

Amanda’s husband, Aaron Kopp who was born and raised in Swaziland, has played with the idea of portraying his home country in its vast beauty and through its authentic stories for some time now. “Swaziland was a wonderful place to grow up in. I hope to be able to raise my children there some day. Swazi culture is beautiful and it was important for us to showcase that in a detailed and positive way. Growing up I did a lot of hiking, exploring, and swimming in rivers. I developed an appreciation for the natural beauty of the country. I was also very fortunate to attend Usutu Forest Primary School and Waterford Kamhlaba High School, where I had many teachers who invested in me and introduced me to art, literature and so many great stories from around the world,” shares Aaron.

While the filmmakers’ creative works have made them global citizens and award-wining artists in their specified fields of interest; the pair frequently visit Swaziland and the orphanage where they found the five young storytellers. Amanda and Aaron have grown to know these children individually as well as the stories that have brought them there.

“The children in our film live at Likhaya Limphlo Lensha, a very special place where they have loving moms and are very well taken care of. Sibusiso is an artist. He still draws all the time. He writes stories and creates comic books. We are so excited to see him develop his love for story and images. Of course each of the kids has their own interests and talents. Zweli loves history and politics, Mkhuleko wants to be an engineer. As they all go out into the world we are excited to see all the amazing stuff they will do. And we hope to start a college fund that audiences can support to ensure the kids have the opportunity to fulfil their potential,” informs Aaron.

Amanda and Aaron have in the past worked on documentaries; however Liyana is their first feature film as well as their first venture into the animation genre. As they set out on taking on this challenge, they decided to work with some of the creative industry’s greatest figures in various fields, including South African storyteller, Gcina Mhlophe.

“As anyone who has ever read her work, or seen her perform can tell you, Mama Gcina Mhlophe is brilliant! In pre-production I spent time reading about creative art therapies as well as traditional stories in Swaziland. It soon it became clear that the use of a fictional character, created by the children, could serve as a unique window into their memories and emotions, while still ensuring some privacy. As soon as we decided on this approach, we contacted Ms. Mhlophe. I first saw her on stage when I was a teenager and remember being transfixed by her performance. We knew she would be the perfect guide for the children in their creative process. She did a beautiful job of giving just the right combination of structure and freedom in their storytelling journey,” shares Aaron.

Mhlophe hosted storytelling workshops with the children aged between 10 and 12 years old. The children made sure not to be outdone by the acclaimed storyteller and were bursting with ideas and stories, and it showed in their screen interviews. “We have had the pleasure of knowing these kids for many years now, and so we had a pretty good idea of how they would do on camera. As we expected they let their imagination run wild. It was difficult to keep up with all of the ideas they had but Gcina Mhlophe was a huge help in guiding the children in their collaboration. And of course there was still a long process in post of cutting down the hours and hours we had of each kid describing their version of each scene. We easily have enough material for a couple more films!” remarks Amanda.

The children developed a female character known as Liyana which means “it’s raining” in siSwati. “The children decided to tell their story about Liyana, a young girl who was born during a rain storm. As the story they tell unfolds she becomes a kind of collective expression of all of the children’s own real-life backstories, and their dreams and fears about the future,” Amanda explains.

In the film Liyana’s world is turned upside down when her father contracts HIV and she loses both her parents. The orphaned character and her siblings then encounter another unfortunate event when their homestead is under attack – a scene inspired by a recent real-life robbery that the children experienced.

In the aftermath of this terrible ordeal, Liyana has to go on a dangerous pursuit to rescue her young twin brothers. However the journey into the wilderness is filled with occasional obstacles, moments of humour and uncertainty as Liyana and the family bull soldier on in their quest.

“At our premiere in LA someone asked the children why they chose a girl and their response was amazing. They described how in Swaziland the lives of young women can be especially difficult and so if she was a girl she would make a better hero because she would have more challenges to overcome,” Amanda shares.

“We were honoured that the children were willing to share their stories with us. Throughout the filmmaking process we felt a lot of responsibility to do everything we could to do their stories justice. They wouldn’t be where they are today if they hadn’t faced some serious challenges early in life, but just like any of us, they don’t want to be defined by the worst things that have happened to them. They want to be defined by their abilities and ambitions,” Aaron adds.

The film’s art director and animation artist, Shofela Coker was tasked with visually interpreting this Swazi story authentically while bringing the people and elements around Liyana to life. This involved sending Coker lots of reference items from Swaziland, affirms Aaron. This included images of people, towns, rural areas, plants, animals and various types of clothing and fabrics.

“Shof was born and raised in Nigeria. Of course, to start with this didn’t give him any special insight into the aesthetics of Swaziland, but it did give him an understanding and appreciation for the detail and specificity of different cultures and regions in Africa. I think if we had worked with someone who wasn’t African it would have been easy for them to slip into a generic, stereotypical ‘African aesthetic’. We wanted to create a film in which the Swazi people could see their beauty reflected. We are delighted to report that this seems to be the case. Several Swazi’s who have now seen the film have commented on just how ‘Swazi’ it is. One Swazi man told us, that Liyana’s grandmother in the film is THE perfect archetypal Swazi grandmother. As you can imagine we are thrilled by this kind of response!” exclaims Aaron.

“He (Coker) is incredibly talented and brought so much life and beauty to Liyana’s world. Shof worked his heart out for years for Liyana. We are all very proud of the result. He and his team created something really special,” he adds.

The music for the film was also developed through an extraordinary journey taken by South African composer, Phillip Miller. “He worked with a group of older traditional Swazi musicians called Bashayi Bengoma. They performed on traditional instruments such as the Makhoyane bow and the Stontolo. They were delightful. It was their first time working on a film score so it was all new. But they were champions. We also worked with a young up-and-coming vocalist in Swaziland, Nqobile Mamba. She impressed us at every step of the way. Philip also recorded with the amazing, Siya Makuzeni in South Africa. Philip took on our requests for a score filled with choral voices and traditional instruments used in unexpected ways, further than we dreamed. He also incorporated some cello pieces that are so beautiful one could weep,” shares Aaron.

Other contributors included Swazi producer, Sakheni Dlamini and British/Zimbabwean actress, Thandie Newton who is the film’s executive producer. “It’s been a total of around eight years in the creative process. We’re thankful that the story is one that stands the test of time. We have hundreds of hours of footage, but the bulk of the storytelling workshop and interviews took place over just a few weeks. It was a slow process to find the funding we needed, and animation is a very long process,” says Amanda.

Liyana was shot using the Sony EX-3 camera with the filmmakers working together with Coker and his team to ensure the animated and documentary scenes were combined seamlessly. “Each scene is based in real space and only realistic camera angles and movement were used. The characters are designed to be quite naturalistic, while the backgrounds are more painterly and impressionistic. We worked to unify the documentary and the animated scenes through creative transitions and colours that speak to each other,” explains Aaron.

“Our animated characters were sculpted in 3D software. Shof and his team painted the 2D layers of background and foreground in Photoshop. These layers were then composited in Adobe after effects where we added motion, particles and other effects to bring to life a ‘breathing painting’ sensibility,” he adds.

Editing was done by Aaron and Davis Coomb, while finishing and other post-production duties were handled by their company, Intaba Creative in partnership with Shine Global.

Amanda says that the young storytellers were excited to see their stories on screen for the first time: “They were naturally the audience that we most hoped would love the film, so we’re so glad they do. Zweli reacted with, ‘It’s more than amazing!’ And Phumlani remarked that the film made him, ‘feel like a hero,’ she shares.

The film had its international premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival where it won the Documentary Award. “We had a sold out screening and were delighted when the characters in our film came on stage and were met with a standing ovation. To win the Documentary Award was great affirmation of the project we care about so deeply. We’re relieved and excited that the meaning behind the film is resonating so strongly with audiences,” Aaron shares.

The film was also showcased at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) where it was nominated in the Fiction category. The film went on to be awarded with the Artistic Bravery title at DIFF and received outstanding reviews at both festivals.

“We made Liyana for Africans to enjoy. While it’s appealing to a very broad audience, we know our film will hold a special place in the hearts of those who are from the region in which it takes place. This is especially true for Swaziland, but I think there is so much crossover with South Africa that will be meaningful to people. Elevating African voices and their perception in the world is our career mission. So connecting with the South African film industry is a big priority for us. Also, we have big plans for outreach and community engagement in Southern Africa, so being here allows us to connect with heads of organisations working in areas such as art, storytelling, HIV/AIDS, and orphaned children. We look forward to partnering with many in the future,” Aaron shares.

After the film’s festival circuit, the filmmakers want to bring Liyana back to Swaziland where it will be shown privately to the rest of the kids and house moms at Likhaya Lemphilo Lesha.

TECH CHECK

EQUIPMENT

  • Camera: Sony EX7

“Each scene is based in real space and only realistic camera angles and movement were used. The characters are designed to be quite naturalistic, while the backgrounds are more painterly and impressionistic. We worked to unify the documentary and the animated scenes through creative transitions and colours that speak to each other.”

KEY CREW

Directors: Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp

Producers: Amanda Kopp, Aaron Kopp, Sakheni Dlamini, Daniel Junge and Davis Combe

Executive Producers: Thandie Newton, Lisa Schejola Akin, Susan MacLaury and Albie Hecht

Animation Artwork: Shofela Coker

Original Score: Philip Miller

Editors: Aaron Kopp and Davis Coombe

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Gezzy S Sibisi
Gezzy S. Sibisi is a senior journalist at Screen Africa. She is experienced in print, broadcast and digital media. Her portfolio of work includes working as a lifestyle reporter as well as contributing business and education articles to The Times, Sowetan, and Daily Dispatch publications. As a freelancer, she has worked on content development for corporate newsletters, community newspapers, blogs and educational websites.

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