Denver Film Festival: Spotlight on 'Liyana'

Liyana. Aaron Kopp. Denver Film Festival

Documentary brings vivid imaginations of young African orphans to life in glorious, haunting animation

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Colorado connections: Married co-directors and producers Amanda and Aaron Kopp live in Denver. Amanda is a home-schooled Denver native who later attended the University of Colorado Denver. Aaron was raised in Swaziland and moved to Colorado in 2002. One of the producers is Denver’s Daniel Junge.

Bottom line: Liyana is an extraordinary testament to the transformative power of storytelling to infuse hope into the lives of five orphans in a remote part of Swaziland – not by merely telling them stories, but by placing the power of the storytelling both in their hands and in their fervid imaginations. “By allowing our young storytellers to take charge of the narrative,” Aaron Kopp said, “we believe we can challenge dehumanizing stereotypes and transform beliefs.”

Liyana/ Amanda and Aaron Kopp. Photo by John MooreThe film: Acclaimed South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope (also an Obie Award-winning actor) leads the orphans, all ages 10 to 12 on an intensive, three-week storytelling workshop in southeast Africa. The collaborative process wrests from their imaginations Liyana — an epic hero’s journey that is informed by the orphans’ folklore, daily hardships and deepest fears. A documentary crew was not only on hand to chronicle the creative workshop, they then employed an animation team (led by astonishing artist Shofela Coker) to bring the children’s story to full and glorious life on the screen.

(Pictured at right: ‘Liyana’ co-producers and directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp appeared last week at the Sie Film Center in Denver. Photo by John Moore.)

So what’s the story? Together, the children brought to life a Swazi girl named Liyana who embarks with her trusty cow on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin brothers who have been abducted. Liyana faces overwhelming obstacles on an odyssey worthy of Homer. But given what these children have themselves endured, from child slavery to starvation to sexual assault to HIV, it can never be assumed that their story will have a happy ending. That they nevertheless tell it with the joy and craziness and humor of a campfire tale just makes the outcome that much more hauntingly endearing. “Because of their experiences in early life, these kids just have a way of looking at the world that I think can be instructive to the rest of us,” Aaron said.

Go to the Denver International Film Center home page

The filmmakers’ approach: At a pre-festival screening last week, the Colorado filmmakers were asked how they knew that these children would produce a story worthy of a documentary. In part, they said they had faith in Mhlope, who is a revered storyteller in Africa. “It was scary when we started because we didn’t know what they were going to come up with,” Amanda admitted. But, Aaron added: “We were pretty sure if we put the children in the driver’s seat, they would take us somewhere cool and weird. And they did.”

SwazilandWhat was the process? Storytelling decisions were made democratically under the guidance of Mhlope, who would present the children with empty plot points that they would flesh out. “She would say things like: ‘Our character needs a sidekick — so who is that going to be?’ ” Aaron said. “They were supposed to debate this for a while, but there was no debate on this point because they all wanted it to be her cow.”

Side notes: The writing workshop was actually filmed seven years ago, but that was just the start of the filmmakers’ journey. That means the five children are now ages 16 to 18, and they were all flown to Los Angeles in June to walk the red carpet at the film’s premiere there. It was their first time outside of Swaziland. Some of them are now making promotional appearances, and filmmakers next hope to release their story as its own standalone graphic novel. … The Executive Producer of the film is the actress Thandie Newton, who is English and Zimbabwean and known for films such as Crash and on TV on NBC’s E.R.

Final word: Ultimately, Liyana is a testament to teachers, and to all of those who employ art as therapy. “This film is really an ode to all of the great teachers I have had in my life,” Aaron said. Every teacher should feel more emboldened by their mission for having seen this film.

Length: 77 minutes

Film web site:

Liyana+Film,+LA+Film+FestivalLiyana Denver screening schedule

  • Friday, Nov. 10, 6 p.m., at the Sie Film Center TICKETS
  • Saturday, Nov. 11, 4 p.m., at the Sie Film Center TICKETS
  • Sunday, Nov. 12 11 a.m., at the Sie Film Center TICKETS

The Sie Film Center is located at 2510 E Colfax Ave., Denver, 80206

Additional (non-screening) panel event: Bucking Long Odds, a conversation with Aaron and Amanda Kopp, moderated by Robert Denerstein, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11. at the Sie Film Center. TICKETS

Check out our Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

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