“It’s harder to live life than to tell a story,” one of the young boys at a Swaziland orphanage says towards the end of “Liyana,” though Aaron and Amanda Kopp’s film suggests that the latter may make it easier to endure the former. Having already captured the resilience of a small farming community in the region where Aaron himself was raised in the award-winning 2009 short “Likhaya,” the married filmmakers return to Africa to have a story told to them as they train their lens on five orphans who create a tale of a girl who sets out to rescue her twin brothers after their home is all but destroyed. With their own quarters recently robbed, it isn’t a reach to intuit that the orphans project themselves into the story of their spiky-haired heroine and while the Kopps largely allow Liyana to take center stage as the kids come together to craft her journey, with their vivid imagination reflected in the vibrant animation created for the film by Shofela Coker, and they gradually bring in the real-life obstacles and challenges that the orphans must overcome in their daily lives that has shaped their worldview.
During the Los Angeles Film Festival where “Liyana” picked up the Best Documentary Prize, the Kopps spoke about how they developed the unique work of nonfiction, as well as the beauty of watching these young men and women attempt to rewrite their own personal narratives through fiction and how the time-consuming process of financing and animation set the film up to premiere at a time when its subjects could actually appreciate it with some perspective.
How did this come about?
Aaron Kopp: I grew up in Swaziland where the film takes place, and my lovely wife and directing partner Amanda and I have been traveling back and forth since we met. Over the years, we got to know this really remarkable group of kids who lived in an orphanage in Swaziland and they just enchanted us. They were remarkable, intriguing, complicated people and Amanda started doing art about them and I started research about art therapy and Swazi folklore and we knew that we just needed to make some kind of art with these guys. Our interests wove together and we eventually developed the concept for this film.
We contacted the teacher in the film, Gcina Mhlophe, a really remarkable woman in South Africa [who is] a storyteller and when we presented our idea to her, she said it was awesome, let’s do it. Then we collaborated with her to develop this story workshop for the kids to go through in order to create their story. We wanted to tell a story with them and we wanted to make sure that we could really highlight their voices and their ideas.
What was the process like interviewing the kids?
Amanda Kopp: In the classes each day, the teacher would say, “Okay, something needs to happen to happen to Liyana that’s going to make her go on a big journey.” Then the kids would brainstorm about it and they would settle on an idea and then in the interviews afterwards with each kid separately, we would have them just tell the story for “Okay, what does that look like? What happened? How does Liyana react?” And they took on the process…
Aaron Kopp: Like crazy.
Amanda Kopp: More than we ever imagined. We had some real talented storytellers in that group. There’s one boy who when you meet him is super-shy, but when he’s on camera and we’re asking him the story of what he wants to happen, he has so many ideas that in every interview, our camera batteries would run out or the light would be gone. He was just so excited, he would just be like, “…And then…and then…” He really fell in love with the character they created.
Aaron Kopp: Yeah, it was a combination of [observing] collaborative group [work] in the class, like artwork and poems and different kinds of exercises to free the kids’ imaginations up a little bit and then individual one-on-one interviews, with each influencing the other as the story progressed. It was exciting to have this story start materializing in front of us.
The story of Liyana actually grows to encompass what these kids are going through in their daily lives in specific ways, and in most films, it would feel like the reserve where you’d see the story growing out of their experience, rather than the other way around. How did you decide on that format?
Aaron Kopp: We knew that we wanted some documentary thread of their day-to-day lives to be part of the story, so we then edited those to go with the parts of the fictional story that made the most sense. When the fictional character [of Liyana] goes to bed and the kids go to bed, they wake up together, so we tried to build the edit by pairing the real-life events with the fictional story in a way that made the most sense.
Amanda Kopp: And we had so many hours of footage that we just had a lot to choose from, so it wasn’t that hard to find things thematically that fit together with the parts from Liyana’s story.
Aaron Kopp: But it was a bit of a gamble on our part because we didn’t know exactly what kind of a story the kids were going to tell. We were hoping that they would draw inspiration from their real lives [and that] we found that compelling, we assumed audiences would too. But the way that they combined pure imagination with inspiration from their real life experiences was really interesting. There’s all kinds of weird subtext to each scene they wrote that’s really compelling, [where] the more you know them and the more you know about their whole lives, it’s really interesting to see what they took from their own experience and what they made up out of the blue.
This may be a silly question, but these are predominantly male kids, so how did they end up picking a female lead character for their story?
Amanda Kopp: Yeah, we get that question a lot and we don’t think the kids were trying to make a particular feminist statement. They, frankly, just liked her hair, I think. [laughs] Since then we’ve asked them about it and their response is great – it is the women who face a lot of challenges in Swaziland and a girl can be a hero too, so the way they’ve embraced it is quite moving to us. But it was a 50/50 chance and that’s just how it went.
Aaron Kopp: It is interesting though how much of a political statement they are making, even if they didn’t do it intentionally. Swaziland is a pretty patriarchal society, so it takes on pretty compelling implications, even if they didn’t mean it. We asked Sibusiso last night about it and he said, “Oh, well, girls, they care about their family more than boys, so it [was natural] it was a story of a girl who cared about her twin brothers.” [laughs]
The animation is quite beautiful. How did you come to work with the artist Shofela Coker?
Amanda Kopp: We searched for a very long time before we found Shof. Eventually, I came across an interview with Shof on AfricanDigitalArt.com, and his images just struck me. He has so much talent and he makes his characters with so much love and heart and reading this interview, we were like we want to be best friends with this guy because he has the same passion that we do. He cares so much about how stories out of Africa are represented. We actually flew out to San Diego – he’s from Nigeria, but he’s based in San Diego – and spent a weekend with him and it was really was a match made in heaven.
Our goal overall was for everything to be really beautiful and very distinctly Swazi in its design. We are just in love with the place and these kids, so we wanted to get as close to what we experienced as we could visually, and we sent Shof hundreds of photos and images of Swaziland. Being Nigerian, he really understands the regional specificity across Africa, so more than any other artist we could’ve found in the U.S. or Europe, he was able to tune into every little detail that would make each image distinctly Swazi, whether it was the clothing, the fabric designs, [or] the foliage. Together, we built this style where the characters in the film are very intricate, 3D software-designed characters and they are placed in 3D space with 2D layers of background and foreground, and we’ve kept the motion of the 3D characters quite limited because we found that the kids are so emotive and enthusiastic as they describe the story that to have the 3D character also play off the action was a little bit repetitive. We [also] found that having these kind of breathing paintings [with] a storybook-come-to-life-style really activates the viewer’s imagination in a cool way.
Aaron Kopp: [Shofela] just gave it life and in a way that I don’t think anyone else really could have and he dedicated just a frightening number of hours to the work. He’s just been a dream collaborator. We feel so lucky to have them.
Have you shown the film to the kids yet?
Amanda Kopp: We showed them for the first first time last night, actually. It was so cool. We’ve been waiting years to let them see the whole film. We got them all in a room together and we could not stop looking at their faces while they were watching it. It’s more than amazing.
Aaron Kopp: Yeah, throughout the whole process, we made sure this was a film that they would be proud of, that they thought was cool and that gave them the respect and the dignity that they deserve. They’re really amazing kids and we wanted them to love the film and we are delighted to report that that’s the case. We’ve worked on this film for eight years, so to have them as our most important audience and to have them watch it and just the way they responded, like “thoughtful, compelling…” it was a really moving experience.
Amanda Kopp: Because the animation and the fundraising took so many years, they’re older now than they are in the film and I’m pretty excited about the moment in their lives that this film is coming out into the world. I think they’re old enough now that they will really appreciate what it means and they’re talking about how they love the idea of being able to inspire other kids like them, so we’re so proud of them and what the future is going to hold for them.
“Liyana” opens on October 19th at the Laemmle NoHo and is now playing in New York at the Maysles Documentary Center.