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Review: 'Liyana's' mix of documentary and animation compels

Review: 'Liyana's' mix of documentary and animation compels
An animated sequence from the documentary "Liyana." (Abramorama)

Shot through with equal parts trauma and hope, “Liyana” fuses stunning 3-D animation with a powerful documentary style. Cinematography vets Aaron and Amanda Kopp (“The Hunting Ground”) make their feature directorial debut with sensitivity and an infectious affection for their subjects, but special credit goes to art director and animation artist Shofela Coker, whose work elevates what could have been a more standard documentary into true art.

The children at a Swaziland home for orphans have lives steeped in struggles, including abuse, violence and AIDS. Under the guidance of storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, five kids create a story about Liyana. As she journeys to rescue her kidnapped twin brothers, Liyana’s story mirrors their own and allows them to express their creativity and optimism for their own futures.

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Cut between moments at the orphan home, the children's narration of the story they’re writing and Mhlophe and Coker’s animation, the Kopps weave a powerful, coherent tale. There’s balance between the narratives: The kids share Liyana’s adventure with eagerness and empathy, with Coker’s lush visuals bringing their ideas to life. The children’s stories alone would have been compelling, but illustrating them in this medium adds even more depth, nuance and emotion.

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‘Liyana’

In English and SiSwati with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Glendale

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