Meet Aaron and Amanda Kopp, the married duo behind Liyana: one of this year’s most distinctive films shot on the African continent. Half documentary and half fiction, Liyana not only defies genres, but also pioneers a new model for filmmakers who engage with traumatic topics.
Described superficially, Liyana is a film about orphans from the HIV-afflicted nation of Swaziland. The Kopps fully recognized how such a topic might fall into cliches and misrepresentations, and resolved to make a fundamentally different movie: one that empowered its subjects, rather than cast them as unwitting participants in “poverty porn.”
To do this, the Kopps made Liyana‘s subjects—five children from a Swazi orphanage Aaron (who grew up in Swaziland) had a family connection with—into storytellers. With the help of a professional South African storyteller, the kids drew inspiration from their own lives to craft a fictional character named Liyana. The Kopps filmed the children’s creative process, and then worked with Nigerian artist Shofela Coker to bring Liyana’s story to life through animation. What results is a film that toggles between the children’s real-life challenges, and Liyana’s fantastical (yet reality-tinged) tribulations.
In an extensive interview ahead of Liyana‘s October 9, 2018 US theatrical premiere, the Kopps explained to Cinema Escapist how they wanted this process to feel therapeutic for the children, and result in something the kids would feel proud of their peers in Swaziland seeing. As the Kopps recounted, “using fiction to bring truth” has a certain redemptive power—and might be a model to take note of not just for Swazi children, but also others who’ve lived through traumatic events.
Take a read, and learn more about the process, philosophy, and social context behind Liyana.
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Liyana’s quite a layered, genre-straddling film. Could you describe it for us in your own words?
Aaron: Liyana is about a group of remarkable young orphans who live in Swaziland and create this fictional character [named Liyana]—whose story comes to life throughout the film. The movie weaves back and forth between the orphans’ daily lives in Swaziland and Liyana’s fictional world; it’s half documentary and half fiction.
Aaron, you grew up in Swaziland, and Amanda I’m assuming you’ve spent lots of time in the country as well filming Liyana. How would you describe the country — visually, culturally?
Aaron: Though Swaziland’s quite small, it’s hard to encapsulate in any single definition. It’s a very beautiful country, it’s a kingdom, it has a unique cultural heritage, and it was a marvelous place to grow up as a kid with many fun adventures along the way.
Swazis are very proud of their cultural and political identity and, struggle as they might, [Swaziland] is a beautiful little place. Like a lot of the developing world, in contrast with the West, it’s not quite painted over with layers of capitalism and convenience. Interaction with life is a lot more immediate, and sometimes that can be exciting.
Amanda: I’ve been going [to Swaziland] with Aaron since 2003 to spend a few months every couple of years. As an outsider, what stood out to me is that it’s a place of extremes. All my experiences there have been so memorable—there’s extreme heartbreak and struggle, but also extreme joy and warmth. The people are just really inspiring to us.
One of the starker realities about Swaziland is how it has the world’s highest HIV/AIDS infection rate, which is something Liyana tackles quite gracefully. From what I’ve heard, over the past decade there’s been fairly successful public health efforts to slow the spread of HIV. How does the orphanage in Liyana fit into that landscape? Especially given you shot the film back in 2009, it seems really well resourced and maybe at the leading edge?
Aaron: Yeah, there’s been a concerted public health effort to tackle HIV/AIDS [in Swaziland], and it has really borne [results]. There was a recent report suggesting the incidence rate (number of new cases per year) has gone down drastically. That is due in large part to education, funding, medication, and all that—they’ve made great strides in the right direction.
The trick is that sort of news means interest and resources are likely to dwindle. However, the number of people who have HIV and the cost of continued treatment will persist, so it’s like the wave has crested but not crashed yet. The long term societal, economic, and cultural impacts of AIDS have yet to be seen, so I’m worried if [public health efforts] wane. That’s not to say we should understate the great advances made by Swazis and other organizations that have worked hard on the issue over the past couple decades.
As to your question about the orphanage [in Liyana] specifically, I wish I could say it was the norm in Swaziland for orphan care. There are a range of different places that take care of orphans—funded by NGOs, churches, government.
[The orphanage in Liyana] is a unique example, though there are others that are fairly similar. They’ve tried to embrace a small, holistic “quality over quantity” approach in contrast with the stereotypical “Eastern European industrial-scale orphanages” that we might have in our imaginations. They tried to make it small and distinctly Swazi in its design, as much like a Swazi homestead as possible so the children are still integrated in their communities and not taken off to some place run by foreigners and then alienated from their culture. I think they did their research and have done a good job of creating the best possible solution in a pretty tough circumstance.
As we mention in the film: the number of kids left vulnerable and orphaned in Swaziland is pretty hard to grapple with. We have a generation of kids that have essentially been raised by themselves. It’s hard to think about what that’ll mean for the country’s future.
How did you discover the particular orphanage and choose to shoot there?
Aaron: Well, my parents are involved in the orphanage! Since I grew up in Swaziland and my family still lives there, I’ve known about it since its inception, really. The benefit of [that close connection] is that we’ve known the kids since a very, very early age. That trust and long-term relationship really pays off in how they’re trusting us with their ideas [in Liyana].
Amanda: We met Zweli (one of the film’s orphans) when he was 5, and he was the one who really inspired us to start thinking about making a film. He was this brilliant little kid who, even at that young age, was obsessed with books and words. He really spoke like a little poet, and we thought that was fascinating. We were intrigued by him and loved hanging out with him so much—from there we started to get to know the rest of the kids.
Aaron: Adding to that, in the early days we talked with the kids about some of their more painful memories from before coming to the orphanage. It quickly became clear that, if they were my own kids, I wouldn’t want to put those traumatic memories on camera—that wouldn’t be the focus of our film.
We wanted to reveal the truth [of their lives] in a way that gave them the dignity and respect they deserve, to make a film they’d be proud to watch. We wanted them to [feel comfortable watching] in a room full of their peers and think that this movie they made was cool.
As you know, so much content is made in Africa with no consideration for the African audience. Western filmmakers generally tell a very particular kind of story in Africa which. While such stories aren’t entirely untrue, they’re quite selective and tend to alienate with a “us versus them” dynamic. I hope Liyana adds a bit of nuance to the narrative about Africa.
The boys in Liyana weave a story that addresses a lot of challenging topics like alcoholism, violent crime, and of course HIV/AIDS. Was there more than what we see in the film that you or Gcina Mhlophe (the South African storyteller) had to do to get the boys to open up?
Aaron: First of all, quick correction, there is one girl! She just happens to have very close cropped hair. But [the group we filmed was] mostly boys though, which was an accident of that age group. In terms of getting them to open up… like any kid, their first instinct was to say “let’s have Liyana live an awesome life, she’ll have a big house and everything’s great!”
Amanda: They were really trying to give us the ‘right answer’.
Aaron: Yeah, and that’s like a product of a really colonial style education system that’s about giving the right answer and not really about creativity.
Amanda: … they were all like “everything’s perfect, and she goes to school every day.”
Aaron: We did have a conversation about what makes a story good, and how good stories often have elements of real life: sometimes there’s conflict, sometimes there’s sad moments or happy moments—stories need a complex texture.
We encouraged [the kids] early on, and the storyteller definitely helped us on this by saying “good storytellers write what they know, so feel free to say whatever you want!” You could then see a lightbulb go on where they’re like “oh wow, so I can just be real? I can say whatever I want?” From that point it was off to the races. They ingested this idea that Liyana could be like them, and that’s what would make things interesting.
Both of you have worked on other films that explore coming to terms with trauma— Saving Face, The Hunting Ground. As filmmakers, what kind of things do you need to look out for, or do, or be cognizant about in order to tell such stories in a manner that’s sensitive to that trauma and empowering to the victims thereof?
Aaron: In many ways, this film is an answer to that whole question, by using fiction to bring us truth in a way that a conventional documentary shouldn’t have. It wouldn’t have been right for those kids to share their traumatic memories directly and put them on display for the world.
In general, documentary filmmakers walk a very delicate line: it’s really easy to exploit the trauma of others. I think it’s important for filmmakers to engage their subjects in a sort of cathartic storytelling process. That was one of Liyana’s first principles: even if the film turned out to be lousy, the storytelling process—the adventure of filming [the kids went] on with us—would be therapeutic. Not therapy per se, but therapeutic.
I think it’s important as filmmakers to tell stories about the truth of the world: and that includes trauma. However, we need to do so in a way that doesn’t take advantage of or objectify your subjects. Those dangers are especially prevalent when telling stories about Africa or the rest of the developing world. There’s been a long history of “poverty porn”, and we really wanted to intentionally go against that.
Some of the other films I’ve worked on, like The Hunting Ground and Saving Face in Pakistan, have made me feel very lucky and fortunate to talk with these powerful survivors of traumatic experiences. Being around the women in those films was a humbling experience. With our better nature as filmmakers, we just hope that the stories we tell are empowering, move issues forward, and make people feel like they have a voice that counts.
I’ve read from public health figures and journalists how traditional gender dynamics contribute to the spread of HIV in Swaziland, and how women experience much higher infection rates than men. How does that square up with how, in Liyana, you have this group of all boys who craft this story of a rather strong female character?
Aaron: First of all, to affirm your point, gender inequity is a compounding factor [for HIV/AIDS prevalence in Swaziland]. In Swaziland, as pretty much everywhere, women get the worse end of the deal. It is a patriarchal society, and that does have very serious consequences when it comes to AIDS.
On the question of how this group of mostly boys created a female character…we brought the kids to our premiere in LA, and someone asked them that question. One of the kids, Mulami, had a pretty interesting answer: “our task was to create this character who overcomes obstacles and difficulties, so it just made sense that Liyana be a women because in Africa most difficulties are faced by women.”
Amanda: Also, the kids in Liyana are also surrounded by these house moms, who they see taking charge. The house moms are leaders [in the orphanage] and I think that, because of these circumstances, the kids have become these natural feminists whether they realize it or not!
Aaron: Yeah, it’s really interesting to see the way they infuse their boyishness onto this young heroine. I don’t think they were making some grand political statement, but it is really important and encouraging in Swaziland to have a young female heroine. The future is more feminist.
When I first saw the film at the Stanford Global Studies Summer Film Festival, I heard from the program director that Liyana was screened in Swaziland at House on Fire, which is apparently a pretty high profile venue. What has reaction been like in Swaziland to the film? Has it sparked any broader discussion regarding the social issues it presents?
Aaron: Ah yes, the House on Fire Bushfire festival — it’s a big music festival, and Liyana was a cornerstone of that whole event. It was an amazing experience because we made the film really hoping the kids in the film, and Swazis more broadly, would be proud of the story—and see themselves reflected in a way they thought was true and beautiful.
We’re really excited to say that’s true. The Swazi press really embraced Liyana, calling her Swaziland’s hero: the US has superman, and now Swaziland has Liyana! I think there’s even a couple babies now named Liyana in Swaziland so I think that’s a high compliment to the film.
It’s been really great to see Swazis embrace the film and say “this is us, we like it, and we’re not embarrassed at this story.” That was incredibly important.
We’re going back to Swaziland, with extensive plans for community screenings all over. We want to show the film on soccer pitches and schools because, as you may know, many [African-made] films don’t get exposure in Africa at all. We’re going to make that exposure happen because it’s obvious that this film by some awesome young Swazis can help cultivate hope, resilience, and a belief that Swazi stories matter.
Has working on and being steeped in Liyana influenced your outlook on parenthood (at the time of this interview, the Kopps had just had their first child)?
Aaron: Wow. It’s been nine years since we first started working on Liyana, so it’s hard to draw a line between ourselves and the film [both Amanda and Aaron laugh]. We quote the kids to each other all the time on this crazy filmmaking journey: “hold onto hope, keep it up.”
In terms of influencing us parenting-wise… I think it’s given us a renewed respect and admiration for what kids are capable of, and the mysteries and wonders that live in their heads. You never know what they’ll come up with if they’re listened to. I hope that’s something we’ll do for our kid, and that Liyana will encourage people who work with kids of every color to do the same thing: to listen a bit more, and realize there’s all kinds of good stuff in kids if you give them an opportunity to let it out.
Amanda: [The film] makes me excited about what can happen when you’re crazy ambitious in your pursuits. The project ended up being so much more daunting, consuming, and expensive than we expected. However, it’s been so rewarding to work on something we care deeply about and we can see inspiring other people. We put everything we made into the film’s craft and message. We didn’t settle, and we kept pushing. I think that can apply to parenthood, and [is] what we’d want to teach our kid as well.
Aaron: Storytelling, life, adventures—they’re arguable the same! We’ve learned a lot from the kids in Liyana about endurance. Getting to be around them in the edit room is good for one’s humility, and helps us appreciate this opportunity to be a part of something larger than ourselves.
How are the kids in the film doing now?
Aaron: Great! Well, they’ve grown up given the film’s taken so long. Everyone’s always surprised when the kids attend screenings because they’re now young adults. But they’re doing great.
Amanda: They’re transitioning out of high school right now.
Aaron: Yeah, Mungabo—the girl in the group—just got accepted into a social work program. She’s extraordinarily proud of that, as she ought to be. She said on stage in Swaziland that she wanted to help kids like her, which I think is pretty awesome.
It’s been interesting how they see themselves in a Liyana context—the film has inspired them to be leaders in their own communities. They recognize they have a lot of responsibility and opportunity to do things well. Two or three of them should be coming to the film’s theatrical release premiere in New York, and they’re just as excited as any other kid in the world about what’s next.
Any upcoming projects?
Aaron: We are essentially holding other projects at bay right now because we are very involved in Liyana’s distribution and outreach. It’s very important for us to stay involved and keep pushing to make sure that Liyana can reach communities that are important for her to reach—whether or not they’re profitable.
Amanda: We’re very focused on making sure that people can gather together to watch the film and discuss it. Therefore, we’re holding off on putting the film online and on DVD for a while so we can get it into schools, do community screenings, and take the time necessary for that.
Aaron: Yeah, Liyana’s such a collective storytelling experience, so we want to prioritize collective screenings—even if that is outside of the conventional theatrical model. We’re very hands on there. Also we have this child, which we’re evidently discovering takes a great deal of time!
We do have some things bubbling though…. not public yet, but watch this space! We’re definitely not done in Swaziland, there may be some things in the works there.
Amanda: In the research stage!
Aaron: We may even venture into fiction. Guess we’re already halfway there [both Amanda and Aaron laugh]!
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Liyana is screening in select theaters and festivals worldwide. Click here for detailed screening information.