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Liyana looks unlike any documentary you've ever seen before.
On one hand, Aaron and Amanda Kopp's feature film takes an in-depth look at the real lives of five orphaned children in Swaziland. At the same time, it weaves an inspiring tale of a fictional young girl named Liyana, who sets out on a dangerous journey to rescue her young twin brothers. Here's the twist: Liyana's story comes directly from the imaginations of the five young children and their firsthand experiences. The result is an absolutely gorgeous hybrid film that's part animated fable, part observational documentary — and EW has an exclusive first look.
"These children, like most at that age, are a lively, imaginative bunch," the Kopps tell EW. "But because of the challenges they faced before coming to the children's home, there was an additional layer of complexity — they were mysterious. The difficult experiences in their early years give them a unique perspective on theworld. This film was just a way for us as filmmakers to meaningfully engage and collaborate with them, and hopefully allow others to be as enchanted by them as we are."
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The Kopps recruited South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe to work with the five kids — Zweli, Sibusiso, Phumlani, Mkhuleko, and Nomcebo — and help use their stories as inspiration for Liyana.
"We are conscious of the fact that black Africans have historically not had enough of a voice in the telling of their own story," the Kopps say. "And we’re disturbed by documentaries that exploit their characters by seeking pity. We wanted to make a film that respects its subjects. For us it is important that the children take charge of the story as their own. With the power in their hands we had no idea where we would end up, but we were sure it would be a powerful story."
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The Kopps decided the best way to bring Liyana's story to life was through animation, teaming up with acclaimed Nigerian artist Shofela Coker. "The style that I developed with Aaron and Amanda was aimed at evoking a quaint, intimate, and at times surreal sensibility," Coker says.
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Liyana's story begins with a peaceful childhood, but when her father contracts HIV, both of her parents die. After a frightening attack at Liyana's homestead, she sets out on a dangerous quest in the wilderness, accompanied by her beloved family bull.
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Aaron Kopp grew up in Swaziland, and he wanted to make sure that the animation style accurately reflected the world he knew. "Our top priority was for the animation to be visually rich," he says. "We wanted the characters to be beautiful and emotive, and for the landscapes, architecture, and clothing to be distinctly Swazi."
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Also part of the Liyana team? Westworld star Thandie Newton, who signed on as executive producer.
"It's a jewel of a project — life changing for the subjects and the audience," Newton says. "I watched the finished film through streaming tears. Liyana is as powerful, beautiful, and unique as its subjects. I was blown away by how the directors took the space and time to reveal how gorgeous, imaginative, articulate, emotionally sophisticated, courageous, witty, and intelligent these children are."
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Rather than completely animating Liyana's story, Coker and the Kopps took inspiration from storybooks to create what they call "breathing paintings."
"As the chidlren in the film tell the story, they're energetic and charismatic, so we found that limiting the motion in the animation kept it from competing with the documentary footage of the kids," Aaron Kopp says.
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"Shof, being from Lagos, Nigeria, he had a special appreciation for the visual diversity of different regions across Africa," Amanda Kopp says. "An artist from anywhere else could have easily slipped into developing a generalized 'African' aesthetic. Shof was committed to shaping the visuals in a way that was distinctly Swazi."
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Rather than asking the children to revisit their own memories on camera, a process that could possibly be traumatic, the filmmakers instead encouraged them to use their own experiences to tell Liyana's story.
"We decided to trust fiction to bring us truth, in a way that a 'pure' documentary could not," the Kopps say. "The fictional narrative allows the children a safe place to express anything without compromising their privacy. Just like anyone, they don't want to be defined by their pasts; they want to be free to shape their own future."
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"The kids in Liyana talk about the fictional characters in a naturalistic sense, while the scenes they describe often present a surreal or impressionist sensibility," Coker says. He used this contrast as inspiration for Liyana's artwork, creating 3D characters against a more 2D background.
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"The challenge for me was to help hone this vision and communicate the essential tone and energy the kids in the film evoke," Coker adds. "I looked at the process of creating the animation artwork as a special language I was fortunate to help translate."
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"Speaking broadly, this is exactly what we need in order to better serve our brothers and sisters in Africa," Newton says. "Films like this, where we grow together — where we embrace each other's hopelessness, and each other's triumphs — can help unite the world."
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Liyana will debut June 17 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.