Storyteller Gcina Mhlophe coaches orphan schoolchildren in Swaziland to create their own adventure story, which becomes the basis for “Liyana,” a marvelous blend of kids telling a story they’re making up and artist Shofela Coker rendering their words into images.
“You are the ones who are making it happen,” she tells them, in English and sisWati with English subtitles.
The kids — the films lets the boys in the elementary school classroom do most of the talking/storytelling — dream up a young girl their age, Liyana. They put her in a thatched hut in a township, with an abusive father who drinks and sleeps around at the bars and dies of AIDS.
They give Liyani two brothers, and a mother who dies of AIDS, too.
“So many of these children’s real life experiences are going to show up on this fictional character,” Mhlophe explains. Their lives have been bleak. The story they tell, with hunger and hardship, robbers and monsters, will reflect that.
“What is Liyana scared of? YOU will decide.”
The kids from the Children’s Home are seen playing, swimming, herding cattle and making toys out of junk. Swaziland, we are told, has a staggering HIV infection rate and hundreds of thousands of orphans to show for it. We even see the kids taking their blood tests.
The story of Liyana will be dark, a quest with magical realism qualities. She is chased by crocodiles, scorched by the desert and aided by a friendly bull, who is here ride and her protector.
All the while, Mhlophe cajoles, encourages, takes votes on plot directions and inspires with the plummiest accent this side of Jamaica.
“There is no RRrrrrrright answer, or wrrrrrrrrrong answer!”
The children admit to putting their own experiences in, from a desire to see the sea to a sense of hopelessness that makes you wonder if their tale will have a happy ending.
“I was too small…didn’t even know anything, when my father died.”
“In your own life, maybe there is no hope. But sometimes you need to keep pushing.”
It’s not literally correct to call Coker’s drawings animation, zooms and pans across vibrant, photo real still (CGI) images give the impression of action of movement, and that’s enough.
I found myself seeing girls in the classroom, but wondering why we weren’t hearing them pitch in on this epic girl’s story. One or two are included near the end, almost as an afterthought by the filmmakers. Pushy boys hogging all the camera time!
But “Liyana” is still a wonder, and the story the kids cook up themselves every bit as epic as the one Disney plagiarized for “The Lion King.” This effort turns out so delightful that somebody should hire these children as focus group consultants the next time Hollywood wants to tell a tale of Africa.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Gcina Mhlophe
Credits:Directed by Amanda Kopp, Aaron Kopp. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:16