Liyana: Why We Need Art Therapy for Kids Everywhere

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Liyana: Why We Need Art Therapy for Kids Everywhere

Jacey Brown, Editor

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From directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp, along with South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, comes award-winning animation/documentary film, Liyana.

In a stunning and inventive combination of animated characters and real orphaned children of the South African country of eSwatini, the film is an artistic and heartfelt demonstration of the power of art therapy in children across the world.

The film starts with five rambunctious and imaginative kids who live in Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha, a home for orphans. Under the mentorship of Mhlope, the kids work together to first create their hero and sidekick – brave, humorous, and afro-donning Liyana and her giant, protective friend, the bull.

From there, the kids were given anything and everything to make their story real to them: paint, tools, crayons –  you name it. What appeared after Mhlophe’s countless workshops was stunning; Liyana was not only a story of a young girl’s triumph, but also contained hidden painful themes, such as HIV/AIDS, violence, and sexual assault, reflected in the lives of the very children who created it.

The film dodges between the alight faces of the young kids as they retell the story for the camera, and the cartoon characters going on the journey exactly as the children detail it.

To put it short, the parents of main character Liyana die of HIV just when she reaches her teenage years, leaving her and her younger brothers to live with their grandmother. This is very similar to the stories of many kids living in eSwatini and other South African countries. Then, after a violent robbery takes place, Liyana and her bull must go on a long journey to rescue her brothers and other children from the evil robbers.

The animation itself is nothing short of extraordinary; the main character provides a beautiful role model for kids to look up to and representation for young black girls everywhere. Plus, it uses hilarious animals and vibrant colors to fully illustrate, to the tiniest detail, what was going on in the minds of the kids who came up with the story.

However, what’s really impressive about Liyana is the growth the children of Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha show as the film goes on. The workshops held by Mhlope were meant to be fun for the kids, but I believe they were also a form of therapy – art therapy – that helped the children process the real-life trauma they went through.
The movie ends with a theme the children themselves proudly declare: “You can choose how your story ends, both in fiction and in real life.”

Utahns got the chance to witness the film at the 2019 Tumbleweeds Film Festival, an event geared towards opening the minds of children to films from around the world.

Liyana isn’t currently in theaters, but if you get the chance to catch it at any of the small film festivals it’s shown for, I couldn’t recommend it enough.