Education Blog

Liyana and the Healing Power of Storytelling

By Emily Ohara, JBFC Kids Curator & Creative Producer 01.14.19

“It is our story and there are no right answer or wrong answers, only good ideas.”

This is how Gcina Mhlope, an acclaimed children’s book writer and activist, sets the tone for the storytelling workshop that five orphaned African children from Swaziland are journeying into.

The workshop is straightforward: an enthusiastic teacher leads the children in small activities to start brainstorming the who, what, where, when, and whys of a three-act story about a girl named Liyana. I was expecting to be moved but was skeptical how moved. I knew before watching the documentary that it would incorporate a story written and told by children using illustrations by Shofela Coker as the main visual component.

Could a voice-over really bring still drawings to life  and cause me to deeply care about the characters and their creators? Ten minutes into the film, it proved that it could.

The documentary artfully blends the real world with the children’s tale so seamlessly you can see how their own lives inspired the setting, the detailed props and clothing, and, most importantly, the plot and character motivations. It was a way for these children to safely reflect on their own traumas and find a path to hope; a powerful tool for any young storyteller. To balance the more suspenseful and darker parts of the story, the close-up shots of the children, who are full of animation and excitement while telling their story, is one of the most engaging parts of the film. I could not stop grinning and at times tearing up as I waited with great anticipation to see how Liyana would solve every challenge that she faced. But the real secret ingredient to bringing these stunning drawings to life were the children’s gestures and expressions along with their own sound effects they made to accompany every action.

This documentary is an incredible journey about perseverance and the healing power of storytelling. After seeing this film, children are going to want to jump in to make a story with others —maybe even one with snapping crocodiles and endless mangoes.

Content Advisory: While sensitively handled, this film does deal with challenging family histories and the lingering impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.