Sunday, March 04, 2018

NYICFF ’18: Liyana

Freedom House unequivocally designates Swaziland as politically “Not Free.” Similarly, it ranks “Mostly Unfree” on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Liberty. Not coincidentally, the nation also boasts the world’s highest rate of AIDS contraction. Obviously, the leaders (mostly appointed by the last reigning absolute monarch in Africa) do not care about the citizenry, but individuals can still make a difference, like the hands-on proprietor/social worker/surrogate family members of the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage, whose residents will tell a partly fantastically and partly heartbreakingly realistic story in Aaron & Amanda Kopp’s Liyana, which screens during the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The orphanage clearly follows in the progressive tradition of Hull House. It provides a safe haven for children, but it also offers cultural programming, such as South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe’s workshop, whose young participants will tell the tale, with her prompting.

They are mostly boys, but their protag will be a girl, Liyana. Like them, she dealt with an abusive home life, before her despicable father succumbed to AIDS. After the subsequent death of her long-suffering mother, Liyana and her younger twin brothers are sent to live with their grandmother. Inevitably, the tragedies continue when the twins are kidnapped by human traffickers. However, the resilient Liyana sets out to rescue them, with only the family bull for company and back-up.

Indeed, trafficking and slavery is a very real threat to children throughout “developing” nations—Swaziland happens to rank 17 out of 167 on the Global Slavery Index. The Kopps and co-editor-producer Davis Coombe largely downplay the dangers that entails (mostly likely forced labor, but sexual slavery is not impossible), presumably anticipating a good deal of their audience would be young children. However, there are some distressingly vivid descriptions of domestic abuse, both within the story and from the storytellers.

In many ways, Liyana follows the template of the traditional quest fantasy. It also has a somewhat fantastical beast, but the real monsters are allegedly human. Of course, Liyana’s bull is much more expressive and cooperative than what you will typically find in a stock show. In fact, he is so cinematic, he will make many young viewers wish his scenes had been fully animated. Instead, the Kopps and artist Shofela Coker take an approach not unlike motion comics, but presumably the intent is to approximate the story-time experience of hearing the tale and then being shown the next picture. It works well enough, but some of the more dramatic passages would probably be better served with full animation (sure, that would cost more, but Abigail Disney is on board as co-executive producer).

It is nice to see these kids controlling their own story for a change. They deserve a freer, more transparent democratic capitalistic system rather than the corrupt authoritarian monarchy they now live under. The film is mostly nonpolitical, but it definitely raises questions why things are as they are. Recommended for families and NGOs, Liyana screens again next Sunday (3/11) at the New York International Children’s Film Festival and also screens Saturday (3/10) and the following Wednesday (3/14) at the AFI’s New Africa Film Festival.