Liyana may just be the first film in which a group of orphans make up the plot.
The original intent of the filmmakers, Aaron and Amanda Kopp, was to make a documentary about children in the New Life Homes orphanage in eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland). Aaron grew up in eSwatini and had met some of the youngsters before he started filming in 2010.
But when the Kopps started on their movie, they had a realization – these kids could make up their own story. And so that's what happened. Ten of the orphans, ages 9 to 12, created a character named Liyana and sent her on an adventure. They were guided by South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe.
The movie is a curious hybrid – there are brief scenes of the real orphans working to tell their story, interspersed with animated segments about Liyana, who lives in a stick and mud house that's painted blue. Clad in a sunny yellow dress, Liyana embarks on a perilous quest to save her younger brothers from thieves.
She travels through mountains and forests and runs into many obstacles, including a monster.
Spoiler alert: It's a story with a happy ending. "They don't identify just as the sum of their suffering," says Aaron of the orphans. "They identify as cool kids who have big dreams and want to do big things in life."
Nigerian artist Shof Coker animated the film and Zimbabwean-English actress Thandie Newton, the Westworld star, served as executive producer. The film was funded in part by grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Doha Film Institute.
Liyana had its world premiere at the L.A. Film Festival in 2017 and went into release in the U.S. this fall. It has won over 20 awards, including the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the L.A. festival and the Knight Documentary Achievement Award.
The Los Angeles Times praised Liyana's combination of "stunning 3-D animation with a powerful documentary style" and said the film is "equal parts trauma and hope."
While Liyana is fictional, the children's own stories make their way into the narrative. For example, armed robbers broke into the children's home not long before the film was shot; in the film, robbers take Liyana's younger brothers.
And Liyana's parents were both HIV positive. Aaron says the lives of all the orphans have been touched in some way by HIV/AIDS. About 26 percent of adults in eSwatini have HIV/AIDS, one of the highest national infection rates. The number of orphans in eSwatini has increased since 2000, in large part due to HIV/AIDS, according to UNICEF. In 2012, there were 78,000 children in the country who had been orphaned due to AIDS.
As Liyana has made its way to audiences around the world, so too have the children who helped make the film. They attended screenings in eSwatini, New York and Los Angeles.
They're now teenagers and young adults, eight years older than at the onset of filming. Some of them have since left the orphanage to study at high schools or universities in eSwatini and South Africa, while others have remained at the home to finish high school.
As they watch themselves on screen, Mhlophe says they feel a sense of ownership.
At one screening, an audience member asked Phumlani, one of the orphans, what it was like to see a story he helped write on the big screen.
Aaron says Phumlani exclaimed, "It makes me feel like a hero," with a big smile on his face.
Rachel D. Cohen is an intern on NPR's Science Desk.