LA Film Festival Review: ‘Liyana’ is a Touching Documentary That Reminds Us of the Salvation in Storytelling

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Animation documentary hybrid “Liyana” marks a staggering feature debut for “The Hunting Ground” cinematographer pair, Aaron and Amanda Kopp. Executive-produced by Thandie Newton and recent recipient of the LA Film Festival’s Documentary Award, “Liyana” depicts the triumph of spirit among orphans in the harsh African kingdom of Swaziland. Striking computer-rendered animation is intercut with live-action footage of orphanage school students who face unbelievable hardship with beaming smiles. With the guidance of a children’s book author, these kids come together to create imaginative life based on their own experiences. Out of their collaboration emerges Liyana, a young female protagonist whose stark reality must be combated with instinct and persevering hope.

While Liyana is a wonderful character who lives up to her inspirational value, it’s her collective creators who matter most. Various private interviews illustrate the depths of imagination yearning to burst free from these young minds. The children don’t view their daily challenges as a burden to bear, but rather a resource to tap into to fuel their storytelling energies. It’s fascinating to see that despite all the pain and suffering endured – HIV/AIDs for instance runs rampant among twenty-five percent of the population – at the end of the darkest day, optimism prevails.

That doesn’t mean the film isn’t without its unsettling moments. Watching a young boy wait to hear the results of his HIV test at the doctor’s office is as excruciating an experience as any in recent documentary memory. The film doesn’t brush aside the agony; it shows how children derive strength from misfortune by coating it as “adventure.” To the judgmental viewer, that could seem like an unhealthy form of escapism that disregards the gravity of the situation. However, if these kids can weave Liyana’s horrifying tale into a life lesson on the importance of cheerful tenacity, their fortitude will be protected during an even scarier time: adulthood.

Liyana’s epic sojourn rivals the greatest of any children’s author, proving that kids make the best storytellers. Their minds are fresh with memories that will leave impressions for a lifetime. Moreover, their burgeoning and active brain produces rapid-fire ideas, one more elaborate and impressive than the next. Liyana’s adventure is both authentically informed and creatively grandiose, making for a compelling animated serial in its own right. Artist Shofela Coker’s main design itself could use some motion – the animation is largely stationary other than a few instances of minor movement.

Gripes aside, Liyana herself is gloriously designed, her thick hair spiked all around like Lisa Simpson except more majestic and heroically imposing. Most remarkable of all is the majority of children filmed are boys who unreservedly relate to Liyana despite gender differences. There are no qualms with potential emasculation by identifying with a strong female character. To these boys, Liyana’s struggles are their own and therefore she’s viewed in equal regard and adoration. So long as the Academy doesn’t resist the juvenile charms of this deeply touching documentary, “Liyana” stands a strong chance of making Oscar buzz headway throughout the year. In spots, the film might be too light and bountiful for some, but given how radiant the children’s’ smiles are, audiences shouldn’t have it any other way.

“Liyana” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. For more Los Angeles Film Festival coverage, visit the Festivals section.

Grade: (★★★)

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