Movie Review: Liyana.
Beautifully animated and filmed, rich in emotion, and uniquely presented, Liyana feels like it should make a bigger impact than the finished product manages.
Liyana is an animated film quite unlike any other. A famous South African storyteller guides a group of orphans in Swaziland through the collaborative process of creating the story of Liyana, a young girl who must undertake an adventure to save her family. A mix of documentary film making and gorgeous animation brings the story of the children and Liyana to life. Both tales are fraught with danger and tragedy. Directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp give us a glimpse into both worlds, but wind up oddly reticent to delve deeply. While the film does provide much food for thought, it lacks a call to action or deep insight to many of the ideas it broaches.
Author and story teller Gcina Mhlophe works with a group of orphans to create their own story. As they wrestle with their hidden childhood tragedies, growing up in a country ravaged by poverty and the AIDS epidemic, they piece together the story of Liyana. Liyana’s journey mirrors their own, suffering the loss of her parents to disease and then losing her younger brothers to human traffickers. As she sets out to rescue the boys, the children weaving her tale find a voice to define their own stories and dreams.
Liyana benefits and suffers from its unique format. The cinematography for the documentary is highly polished and deft, knowing what to show for maximum impact. The animation is beautiful, presented in a style like pages from a children’s book with minimal motion. The film switches back and forth between the two media styles frequently. This helps to let the children’s lives give context to Liyana’s journey and to let the needs of creating Liyana’s story guide the children to open up about their own experiences.
The downside is that neither narrative achieves a consistent flow, with the animated story feeling very choppy and disjointed and the children’s accounts coming to frustrating stops, sometimes never to be picked back up.
Show Don’t Tell.
The Kopp’s approach to crafting this film is to let the story making process do much of the heavy lifting. As the children brainstorm ideas for Liyana’s adventure, they let the audience into their private world. It is a harrowing world. Some of the children have lost their parents to AIDS. Some have run or been driven away from home by abusive adults. We’re not explicitly told, but it is heavily hinted that several children are themselves dealing with HIV. One child is an albino in a part of the world that treats albinism very harshly. The group home seems pastoral and idyllic, allowing the children to laugh, climb and play while also learning how to farm, raise livestock and cook. Under that surface we see the despair kept at arm’s length; food is always a concern, as is medical treatment, and even the incursion of armed robbers willing to steal from children.
…But Tell a Little!
There are several inter-titles in the beginning that give a broad summary of life in Swaziland and the hardships there. The film remains frustratingly vague on several fronts which made me wish for more explanatory material. The choice to mostly communicate through the camera lens feels wrong in places. We see children taking pills, and are left to infer that they’re treating HIV. We see an excruciating ordeal where a new arrival must take a blood test to see if he has the disease. The camera lingers and lingers over the obviously distraught child until the result is mercifully given as negative. It feels exploitative, especially since there’s never a call to action about how one could help. It veers dangerously close to poverty tourism.
Another drawback to the reticence is that we don’t get close to the children. We get their first names only once, too early to really form an identification with them. The film seems to encourage us to regard them as “plucky, tragic, generic orphans” as a group identity. We rarely get to put their whole story together. I wanted to know if the boy who loves to make sound effects for the story was also the boy who ran away from home. If the defiant girl who you can usually find sitting in a tree added certain details of her life to Liyana’s. If the quiet boy who feels like everyone’s older brother is taking those pills to treat HIV, and if so how he feels about making Liyana’s parents victims to the disease. We never get a chance to really know them as individuals instead of just emotional cues.
Wide as an Ocean, Deep as a Puddle.
I wanted to celebrate what Liyana accomplishes and attempts, but felt frustrated at every turn. It’s not informative enough as a documentary. I don’t feel like I got to know anyone there. Not the children, not the storyteller, no the caretakers, not even the society of Swaziland beyond very broad strokes. The children were endearing, but not given a chance to claim an identity beyond the narrow one the film is intent on showing. It wound up feeling exploitative, a film meant to generate pity instead of empathy.
The animation is quite a sight, but never really coheres. Part of this is the ad hoc, disjointed nature of the creation process, but some of it is the film’s choice of pacing. At times it seemed that Liyana’s tale was there to create emotional tension by interrupting a revelation by the children. At other times the children’s day to day life interrupts a big moment in the story for little effect other than dramatic tension. As pretty as it is, the lack of motion also mars the film from being a proper animation.
Don’t Be a Just a Tourist.
Liyana may be intended as a first step towards understanding the conditions in Swaziland. I can appreciate that the film raises many things worth discussing. It just never feels like it discusses them itself. As a documentary of a singular experience, of a classroom exercise to engage children, it’s fine. I can’t say it is itself engaging, because it gives no method of engagement besides simply looking on. I waited for the end of the credits to say something, to at least link to more information or groups to aid in changing these kids’ prospects. It never came. We are whisked into these kids’ lives, get to feel appropriately big-hearted for feeling the proper emotions when faced with tragedy, and are then whisked away from these children without being asked to do anything.
That sucks. So I decided to actually do something and gather resources. The list is below for those looking to actually change something. I suggest donating the price of a movie ticket, like we did here at Deluxe Video Online. Imagine if one of these organizations got a fraction of what we habitually shell out for crud like Transformers!