Danger, Darkness, Afraid to Fail – Liyana (London Film Festival Review)

Rating:

Whatever Mark Twain may have to say on the subject, some statistics simply don’t lie. In the small dot on the ankle of South Africa, Swaziland’s census makes for seriously depressing reading; 25 percent of the population have AIDS, 40 percent of children are orphans, 63 percent of people live under the national poverty line, life expectancy is less than 50 and violent crime is one of the highest in the world. Against a background of this, it’s difficult to think what goes on in the head of the children bought up in such circumstances.

Husband and wife filmmaking team Aaron, a native Swazilander, and Amanda Kopp, decided to take this idea forward and contacted renowned South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe to sit with a class of children at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage. Over the next few days, Mhlophe asked the children to come up with ideas to create a story, the tale subsequently animated in beautiful vividness by Shofela Coker. After deciding on a young girl called Liyana as their protagonist (an interesting choice given the majority of boys in a highly patriarchal country), they created her adventurous narrative. What is most striking is that no princesses, talking cars or fairy godmothers are imagined here as would be expected in the western world. Liyana’s adventure includes AIDS related parental deaths, an abusive drunken father, violent robberies, human trafficking and child rape. At no point does a forced psychoanalytical element of catharsis feel present, simply a bunch of kids talking about what they know and have experienced, an exceptionally moving and desolate landscape to observe. What is incredible to witness is that despite all these dreadful recollected happenings, the children always display a thrilling sense of optimism and hope.

One minor niggle is that even at its compact 77 minute running time, Liyana does start to become a touch pedestrian at times. The Kopp’s solution to this is to inject some of the children’s day to day activities into the narrative, which gives a needed breather from the linear projection of Liyana’s tale. A particularly heart-wrenching scene sees one of the children, no older than 6, tearfully waiting in a doctor’s surgery for the result of an HIV test. To see such a small child alone being talked to in such frank terms by a doctor is truly shattering. Also, hardly mentioned, perhaps for their own protection, is an albino child who is in peripheral view a time or two. Given that albinos are regularly beheaded for witchcraft in Swaziland, this provides a grisly insight into the daily dangers of the children and carers at the orphanage.

Liyana is a sobering and important peek through the looking glass at a forgotten generation. If at times it meanders a little, this is largely remedied by the searing universal hope of children’s imaginations.

Dir: Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp

Cast: Gcina Mhlophe

Prd: Davis Coombe, Daniel Junge, Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp

DOP: Aaron Kopp

Music: Phillip Miller

Country: Qatar, Swaziland, USA

Year: 2017

Run Time: 77 minutes