In Swaziland 25% of adults are infected with the HIV virus. Out of a population of 1.2 million, this is a staggering figure. Because of this, many children are left without parents and are sent to orphanages. LIYANA is essentially the story of one of these orphanages, where each of the children has a heart-breaking story; being left alone in houses, tied up by grandparents, surviving on their own. LIYANA, however, is not an average documentary about their difficult situation, as one might expect. Rather, the film is a creative workshop with the children, as they build a fictional story about a girl called Liyana.
LIYANA is told using two parallel stories. The first is the story of the children themselves, as we follow their daily lives in the orphanage. Liyana is really the fictional story within the story of the children’s lives. Each day, the children add to the story of Liyana: a girl whose twin brothers are kidnapped, and she is on a journey to rescue them. This fictional story-within-their-story is beautifully told using animation, with bright, vibrant water-colour cartoon-like paintings. We follow Liyana as she crosses crocodile-invested rivers, hot, dry deserts and fights mythical creatures who guard her brothers – all fabricated by the children as they continue the story each day.
This is the magic of the film as a whole and explains the apt title – Liyana is the children; their truth, their story.
It is fascinating to watch the parallel stories work together – initially one might think that it is simply the story of the children juxtaposing the fictional story they are building, separate entities. However, you soon realise that the children so open – as children are – with their lives that it is impossible for them to tell the story of Liyana without injecting their own lives into her story. Sometimes this is extremely direct. Liyana’s brothers, they decide, are kidnapped by a group of thieves. This seems a likely direction the children would think about. Then the audience discovers that three months earlier, a group of thieves broke into the orphanage. As well as that, Liyana’s parents die of AIDS, as told by the children. One realises that the realities of the children – their parents dying of this deadly virus – and their fears – being stolen by thieves – are becoming part of the story. Thus, Liyana essentially becomes a character who is a combination of all of the children. This is the magic of the film as a whole and explains the apt title – Liyana is the children; their truth, their story.
The animation is beautifully, and lovingly, crafted with an array of landscapes, colours and creatures that perfectly suit the story the children are telling. The images have obviously been designed based on the descriptions told by the children; the parallel between the two stories is able to show this, adding some humour along the way, as it jumps between documentary and fiction. The fictional characters have an anime cartoon quality about them – with emotions shining out of their eyes and almost outrageous, dramatic movements and actions, especially during fight scenes.
Each child is so engaging, funny and heart-breakingly unguarded.
It is the children that eventually win over the film as a whole, and it could be said that the animated sequences, although brilliantly executed and a wonder to observe, break into and jump away from the story of the children. Each child is so engaging, funny and heart-breakingly unguarded. That they are so incredibly comfortable in front of the camera is a credit to the filmmakers. The presentation does feel very safe at times, a little too sweet and comfortable when one thinks about the truth about the harsh experiences these children have been through, into which the film doesn’t dig too far. But perhaps to do this would unjustly take the film away from the happiness these children are currently feeling; they are being given another chance in this orphanage, despite their dark pasts, which the fictional side of the story highlights. Despite the past, from where they are drawing Liyana, one realises that their future is still unwritten and is certainly brighter than where they came from.
LIYANA is an inspirational tale of a group of children brought together by a fictional character. Not only does it tell their story, in various ways, but shows the power of storytelling and what it is able to achieve even in the most hopeless of places.