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(After a successful film festival run in which it won several awards, Amanda and Aaron Kopp’s doc-hybrid Liyana is in limited release now and expanding each week.)

A simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming work of hybrid fiction/nonfiction, Liyana, from the wife-and-husband team of Amanda and Aaron Kopp – making their feature debut – takes us on a journey to an orphanage in Africa’s Swaziland, where children use storytelling as therapy to overcome past trauma. Most of them have lost parents from HIV/AIDS (according to the CDC, Swaziland has “the world’s highest estimated prevalence rate of HIV-infected adults, with over 26% of people aged 15-49 affected), and struggle to find new paths forward, even as some of them fear that they, too, might have the virus. Led by South African writer and performance artist Gcina Mhlophe, they craft a narrative of a fictional young girl named Liyana, who faces – and overcomes – terrifying obstacles that mirror their own, though with a touch of fantasy mixed in, for good measure. What emerges is both poignant and magical, and pure cinema.

Half the movie is the tale told by the children, and the directors render it through the lovely work of animator Shofela Coker, though the voices we hear are those of our orphans. Coker’s art is beautifully evocative, a great companion to the Kopps’ gorgeous cinematography (they shot the movie, themselves). Whatever issues Swaziland may have in terms of fraught history and overwhelmed infrastructure, its verdant, mountainous landscape looks great on camera. And despite the real horrors that the movie’s diminutive protagonists have lived through, the irrepressible energy of youth comes through as they invent new adventures for Liyana. Clearly, Mhlophe’s workshop is just what they needed.

Indeed, the joy of living is this movie’s greatest takeaway, which may seem odd given the deep sadness at its core. Yet Mkhuleko, Nomcebo, Phumlani, Sibusiso and Zweli – to name just a few of the kids – spend most of the movie smiling and happy, whether interacting with their fellow orphans or describing what they next plan for Liyana. “Look! There’s a river filled with crocodiles! How will she get across? Oh, no, there’s a monster! What will she do? How will she beat back the threat of the bad men who have stolen her brothers?” That last one’s a little bleaker, for sure, and more realistic, but even when they plot the nasty parts, their eyes come alive. Such is the power of trauma therapy, and of this movie. Liyana offers hope, both to these children, and to us.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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