Film Review: ‘Liyana’

It is through oral storytelling that most key folk tales, myths and histories across African culture have been passed and preserved through the generations. It is by tapping into this rich tradition, meanwhile, that “Liyana” makes authentic a device that might otherwise have seemed cutesy: leaving half its story in the hands, or rather mouths, of five young Swazi orphans, as they collectively weave an epic quest narrative about a resilient tribal girl trying to reunite her family against daunting odds. The rest of Aaron and Amanda Kopp’s short but stout-hearted documentary colors in the challenging reality that shapes the children’s fiction — foremost among them the AIDS epidemic that continues to blight the tiny nation of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland).

“Liyana” uses vibrantly distinctive animation to illustrate the kids’ ongoing, imaginative saga: Fusing static but 3D-sculpted characters with subtly shifting 2D backdrops, this “breathing painting” style lends a picture-book quality to their tale while still nodding to the fluidity and porousness of the oral tradition. Designed by Nigerian-born visual artist Shofela Coker, these visuals act in vivid contrast to the unadorned vérité of passages depicting storytelling sessions and daily routines at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage, where our young narrators reside. Miserablism isn’t what the Kopps are after, though, and a predominance of sunshine and small, smiling faces in its articulation of tough times has understandably made this summer-bright doc a hit on the festival circuit.