‘Liyana’ is strong. I’m also strong.

The Denver Film Festival documentary showcases the struggles of Swaziland’s orphans.

Picture of Liyana with brothers in documentary animation filmAaron and Amanda Kopp have been traveling around the world to share with as many people as possible a story that is told by remarkable children. In November, they’ll be bringing “Liyana” home for the 40th Denver Film Festival. Denver.com was lucky enough to see this unique film early, and we can’t stop thinking about it.

Who is Liyana?

While “Liyana” is directed by the Kopps, the story of Liyana herself is not from theirs. It comes from the imaginations of the orphans living in the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha home in Swaziland. The creation of Liyana and her journey, including her image, was facilitated by the world-renowned author and activist Gcina Mhlope. She and the children developed the deeply personal story during workshops and then a handful of the kids recounted each detail to the filmmakers, which became the narration for the entire film.

While the Kopps were initially nervous about having the kids narrate the story, they realized immediately that they had made the right choice. Five children present the story in their own special way – complete with the sound effects, gestures, and affectations of seasoned actors. You fall in love with Phumlani, Sibusiso, Nomcebo, Mkhuleko, and Zweli as they tell us about Liyana, which is a testament to the dedication of the Kopps.

Liyana’s journey is animated and unfolds as we learn more about the children’s lives at the orphanage through live action photography. It has the ups and downs that every great story has, but the most captivating part of the story is how it intertwines with the personal traumas of the orphans who are dealing with violence and the HIV epidemic that is still devastating Swaziland. Each step that Liyana takes reflects a memory that at least one of the kids has. Even the ending is a source of strength and joy for every child: “If Liyana’s story goes on, my story can go on.”

Liyana Denver Film Festival Image

About the Filmmakers

Aaron and Amanda Kopp are based in Denver and traveled back and forth to Swaziland in order to film the orphanage. Principal photography began in late 2010/early 2011, and the film was finally completed for its world premiere earlier this year. The production quality is impressive for the first-time filmmakers. Every detail from the opening shot to the beautiful storybook quality of the animation created by Shofela Coker draws you into the world of Liyana and her authors.

Kopps, the filmmakers of Liyana

Aaron Kopp grew up in Swaziland, which explains the personal feel of the film. Unlike many documentaries set in African countries, you can sense a trust between the filmmaker and the subject. The kids grew up with the Kopps who have been traveling to Swaziland since 2003, even before they started the film. Amanda Kopp is a Colorado-native and portrait artist. Between her eye for framing and Aaron’s eye for cinematography, the visual aspects of the documentary are refreshingly rich.

The animator is Nigerian artist Coker, who left a very lucrative job with Sony in San Diego to work on the film. His talent and dedication to faithfully represent Liyana’s journey paint a picture of Swaziland that feels real even during the most difficult moments.

“Liyana” is a must-see film, as evidenced by the numerous awards it has already won at various festivals. It educates as well as uplifts. It is awe-inspiring and a wonderful reminder of the creativity that is being cultivated in Denver.


Friday, November 10, at 6:00 pm

Saturday, November 11, at 4:00 pm

Sunday, November 12, at 11:00 am

All screenings will be at the Sie FilmCenter, located at 2510 E. Colfax Ave. For ticket information, click here.