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LA Film Festival: Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp Discuss the Beautiful Liyana

Liyana is a beautiful, creative and inspiring documentary from Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp about a young girl who sets out to rescue her twin brothers from kidnappers.

Eight years in the making, the documentary uses the visually enchanting work of Shofela Coker to illustrate the narrative through animation as five orphaned children draw on their collective imaginations to tell this story.

Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the world. In a population of 1.2 million, over 200,000 children have been left orphaned and vulnerable. Through Liyana’s journey, the film interweaves poetic and observational scenes to create a celebration of collective storytelling.

Liyana won the Documentary Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I caught up with the filmmakers after its world premiere.

Liyana was eight years in the making. How did this idea begin?

Amanda Kopp: Aaron growing up in Swaziland was the initial connection and we’ve been going back together since 2003. We met these kids and we were so impressed by them.

Aaron Kopp: They, unfortunately, have a not so unique set of experiences that are far too regular. They are an intriguing group of kids.

Amanda: The woman who teaches the storytelling workshop in the film is a well-known orator from South Africa. Aaron saw her perform back when he was in high school.

Aaron: She changed my life. I was transfixed by her performance. She’s an incredible presence and if you’re in the same room as her, you won’t forget it.

I knew we wanted to make a film about these kids. There are a lot of films about African kids that are exploitative and they profit from the suffering and the poverty. These kids were our friends and we wanted to make a film that didn’t make them feel vulnerable, embarrassed or any way shameful.

We wanted to tell their story in a way that wouldn’t expose them.

Amanda: It’s about them.

Aaron: We wanted to put them in the driving seat because we knew they would take us on a wild ride. Amanda is also an artist and she was making portrait work of the children that explored what might be in their imaginations.

Amanda: Aaron had delved deeply into research about creative therapy and Swazi folklore. Our separate paths converged into the film.

Aaron: It didn’t come about as any sudden epiphany. We did early filming with the kids and we weren’t sure where we’d end up with them.

Amanda: Finding our animator Shofela Coker was a significant part of our process of determining what the film would look and feel like.

His work is visually stunning. How did you find him? 

Amanda: We found him on Africandigitalart.com. There was an interview and he made it clear his heart and passion aligned with ours.

Aaron: We searched for years to find the right person, someone who would be willing to make a sacrifice because this is a small independent film. We flew to San Diego, charmed him into it.

Amanda: He directed a team of freelance artists all around the world.

What makes this documentary beautiful is the animation. At what stage did you decide you wanted to have the animation be a narrative mechanism?

Aaron: Early on, we decided that. We created this fictional space where from behind the thin veil of anonymity, the kids could be free to express themselves and we knew that it would be amazing. It was a way for them to be free without being limited.

Amanda: As artists, we were so excited by the visual aspects of being able to capture Swaziland in a creative way that had never been done before.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this. What did you learn from speaking with the children?

Aaron: We learned so much. I feel you can hardly draw a line between us and them, and the film brings us together.

Amanda: They give us so much hope and motivation. We actually quote lines from the film to each other, such as, “Hold on to hope.”

Aaron: Liyana’s journey in the film has become a metaphor for our lives. Some of the tough stuff they’ve dealt with, and how they find joy in life is humbling.

How would you describe the film to people?

Aaron: It’s about a young girl called Liyana who has to embark on a journey with her sidekick, the bull, to save her twin brothers from kidnappers. The whole story comes out of the imaginations and creativity of really talented kids who live in an orphanage in Swaziland and it’s their way to reveal themselves to us on their own terms.

What has the journey of the film meant in terms of raising awareness?

Amanda: Well, next we’re really excited to be taking it to the Durban International Film Festival.

Aaron: The homecoming is really important to us to take it back as soon as possible. Exposure of African films in Africa is limited.

So, we’re keen to have a big party and bring the kids there. As I’m sure you’re aware, many things have been taken from Africa. Giving back as much as possible is a big part of our outreach campaign.

We want to make sure these Swazi kids are seen because they have a lot to teach.

Amanda: We’re working on a comic book as well and we’re really excited about how that is coming together.

Aaron: It can be translated into the languages in the region. The idea of a kid being able to own this story is really exciting. The artwork is gorgeous. Shofela Coker’s artwork is breathtakingly beautiful. To have the artwork go from the film to the page will let you have time to look at it and appreciate how much work was put into it