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By Mary Summerbell

“We don’t know where the story’s going. You will decide.” So begins the movie Liyana, a truly outstanding entry this year at Beloit International Film Festival. The opening scenes, in typical documentary style, are of a master storyteller and activist, Gcina Mhlope, in a classroom in Swaziland, Africa, interacting with grade school students who have been orphaned by an Aids epidemic there, where one fourth of the adult population has HIV and  200,000 children are now without parents in this small country.

Gcina tells the children, “I will work with you in a comfortable way so you will feel free to share your ideas. There is no right or wrong. Just good ideas” On a desk she lays out a selection of printed panels, much like puzzle pieces, of a variety of individual facial features. We see the kids, with her subtle, ninja-like guidance, working quickly and easily together to create the face of their main character, by mixing and matching the interchangeable pieces until they come up with the combination that is just right for them. Then, by collective consent, they name her. 

And she instantly comes to life on the screen in the vivid, detailed, captivating animation of artist Schofela Coker. It is stunning, fascinating, amazing how he and his fellow artists bring to life what the children imagine. The effect is magnificent. Almost miraculous. From then on we go back and forth between illustration and documentation in a magical way that’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. The blending of techniques is smooth and extremely effective. It is never jarring or disorienting as we slip from one reality into the other, even though there are moments of transition when it is not quickly clear to me which world I am in. Which, as I watched, got me to pondering the perpetual question, “What is real?”

What is real is what we relate to, what has meaning for us. Real is what we connect to in life. What was most meaningful for me in this movie was the web of connections of the many stories it was all about. Stories of children affected by disease and death, violence and abuse. Yet also affected by those who help them get through to a brighter life. It’s a story of community and creativity and collaboration. And the story of filmmakers willing to spend eight years of their lives to tell this story because they are part of it. They know these kids, have lived with them, care about them. This is clear, even though so much is intentionally left unsaid in this movie. We never know the details of the backstories of the children. They are not asked. And they do not tell. The filmmakers protect them from reliving the trauma by giving the kids a way to safely and creatively explore and express their personal inner reactions to their own real life events – by letting them speak through their heroine’s quest. By identifying with her courageous qualities, the children become their own heroes, and empowered in their own lives.

“Liyana is strong,” one girl says. “I am strong, too” 

“Some families’ stories end sad,” another girl says. It’s true. Sad things happen. Bad things happen in life. None of us know, starting out, where our stories will go. We don’t know if it will end sad, or happy. Or both. There’s a lot that happens in life that we can’t control. Maybe most of it. But it is the process of living our lives, in the choices we make, that we develop strength of character. “Living your own life is harder than writing,” one young man says. His friend, a girl, agrees. “It’s not going to be easy,” she says, “but it’s an adventure.”

There is no deception here. No right or wrong. Just the stories – real and imagined. And all true. Throughout the film it is not the tragedy of these children that we see, or their suffering. We see their Light-their bright, beautiful faces, joyous gestures and expressive souls. In their stories, told through Liyana’s story, we see the finest of life. It is uplifting and inspiring to see that there is power in the magical process of creating, and in telling, and sharing our stories. Ultimately, the children are the most animated element of this movie. One boy expresses it best when he says, “When people remember Liyana I want them to remember us making our own words.”

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