In the 'Liyana' Movie, Orphans Create Beauty Out of Hardship Through Storytelling
Children have the most wonderfully wild imaginations—there’s really nothing that compares to the enthusiastic way in which youngsters dream up vivid stories and lively scenarios. Whether they’re using dolls or crayons and pieces of paper, they have a way of visualizing that’s wholly unique and utterly unencumbered by rules or worry. That’s why Liyana, a hybrid fairytale born in the imaginations of five African orphans, works so well—it’s told by, and about children.
Liyana is the name of a fictional Swazi girl who embarks on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin baby brothers from kidnappers after her parents both tragically die, one after another. It’s a story of perseverance drawn from their darkest memories and brightest hopes. The character’s journey is interwoven with observational documentary scenes of the orphans to create a genre-defying celebration of collective storytelling and the power it can hold.
Under the guidance of acclaimed South African storyteller, Gcina Mhlophe, the kids create a heroine who mirrors their own hardscrabble lives (Liyana is beaten by her drunken father; her mother dies of HIV; robbers plunder her village… the details are too heartbreaking to be made up) and yet gets through it all to make a better life for herself. The imagined viewpoint is both a mechanism to educate viewers and heal cathartically from within. Through the art of storytelling, these children learn that they do matter and that they’re not powerless.
Juxtaposed with traditional African music and vocals, the visuals come to glorious life both on film and through the stylized animation. The plot is as thrilling as any classic adventure, unfolding with verve and suspense as the children tell it in their own words. The real-world tale unfolds almost vicariously, as in one scene we watch as one of the young orphans visits the doctor to see whether or not he is HIV-positive; and Liyana has a brush with death. Then there are moments of carefree play for the children in the vast, golden cow-pasture, shown as Liyana and her best friend, a brahman bull, head out on their quest.
Liyana is a relatable and aspirational character, and so are these wonderous, real-life children living in an orphanage in Africa. Liyana is a great film for children to watch, as it will show them how alike we all really are. Yes, the subject matter can be heavy at times and may be too difficult for some children—you may want to view it first before sharing. Younger kiddos may not fully absorb the intricacies of the message, but regardless—they will be inspired to create.