Liyana is animation like you’ve never seen before

In the multi-award-winning film, legendary South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope guides five eSwatini orphans through a unique story.

The groundbreaking animation, Liyana, is now streaming on Showmax.

In the multi-award-winning film, legendary South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope guides five orphans in The Kingdom of eSwatini through the process of creating a story. They workshop a gripping tale about a young girl, Liyana, who embarks on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin brothers - a fairytale story of perseverance drawn from their darkest memories and brightest dreams.

While the storytelling process is captured in traditional documentary style, the tale the children are telling is gorgeously animated, creating a unique hybrid film. As their real and imagined worlds begin to converge, the children must choose what kind of story they will tell — in fiction, and in their own lives.

Winner of 35 awards, Liyana on Showmax is directed by Amanda Kopp and eSwatini-born and raised Aaron Kopp, who shot the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face and the Oscar-nominated The Hunting Ground.

“I grew up in Swaziland and will always consider it my home,” says Aaron. “In part, this film is a love letter to my childhood in that beautiful African kingdom.”

He’s known the children in the film - Zweli, Sibusiso, Phumlani, Mkhuleko, and Nomcebo - for years. “During our research period for the film, we talked to the children about their early life before they came to the orphan home and quickly realised that asking them to revisit traumatic memories in front of a camera was not the path we wished to take,” he says.

In pre-production, Aaron spent time reading about creative art therapies as well as traditional stories in eSwatini. “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,” he says. “As soon as we decided on this approach, we contacted South African storyteller and author, Gcina Mhlophe. We knew she would be the perfect guide for the children in their creative process.”

The story the children choose to tell is both inspiringly imaginative and heartbreakingly close to home, but the animation by Nigerian Shofela Coker takes it to the next level.

The filmmakers didn’t want the animation to overpower the documentary scenes, so Shofela says they came up with “the idea of a breathing painting that evokes the intimate feel of pop-up storybooks or shadow puppetry…” The result has been widely praised and saw Shofela nominated for Outstanding Graphic Design or Animation at Cinema Eye this year.

“In Liyana, we hope the audience will be swept away by the children's imaginations, in the same way that we were,” says Aaron.

Watch Liyana on Showmax and be swept away to the Kingdom of eSwatini.