“It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll be an adventure.” These words — while uttered at the very end — percolate throughout the entire compass of Liyana, the narrative documentary in which a group of students collaborate on an animated story of a young Swazi girl who embarks on a journey to save her twin brothers after they are kidnapped from her and her grandmother by robbers.

Directed by Aaron and Amanda Kopp, Liyana deftly juxtaposes the imagined animation of the titular character and the real, tangible lives of the students, who unintentionally operate as characters themselves. Liyana is also executive produced by actress Thandie Newton.

Guided through the caring hands of their teacher, Gcina Mhlophe, the boys and girls join together to bring Liyana to life — in the words of Mhlophe, “we want to see her face.” Via rich colors and stark symbolism, the kids master the key components of storytelling in the most innocent and purest ways. Like any great storyteller, the children incorporate aspects of their real lives and combine those with the snippets of their respective broad imaginations.

In a jarring text displayed onscreen, the film cites, “25% of adults in Swaziland have HIV/AIDS,” often leaving children without one or both of their parents. Given that HIV/AIDS is a looming shadow within these children’s lives, the component is incorporated into the story. Still, the wonder of children adds a special component to the difficult issue, as one of the children describes HIV as “biting” the parents in a way only a childlike mind can. Or how we, as the audience, were brought along into a live HIV-testing of a child as the heavy tension filled both the physical room and the room in our collective chests. The strenuous topics the children incorporate into the story such as disease and abuse are told with such chasity, yet there is a hint of knowing hurt and vulnerability in their eyes.

The children as highly animated as they narrative the tale of Liyana and her journey to find her twin brothers, integrating masterful plot devices such as the supporting character of the bull and the conflicting obstacles such as crossing the crocodile-infested river. One particular aspect that impressed me was during the moment when Liyana was at her “all is lost” moment, suffering from hunger pangs and contemplated eating the bull and being tested with the dichotomy of a creature who usually serves as prey becoming her friend.

The overall theme of the story both on the surface and beyond is “overcome fear” and “hold onto hope.” Though the students weave these words into the mouth of the fictional character of Liyana’s grandmother, it’s quite obvious that it is a mantra for their lives as well. Liyana is certainly a well-executed narrative within a documentary filled with emotionally-rewarding moments and lessons-learned for the audience to take home with them.

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