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African animation now streaming on Showmax

The animation-documentary Liyana is a pan-African collaboration co-directed by Eswatini’s Aaron Kopp, animated by Nigerian Shofela Coker, and starring South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope.

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In the multi-award-winning film, legendary South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope guides five orphans in The Kingdom of Eswatini through the process of creating a story. They tell a gripping tale about a young girl, Liyana, who embarks on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin brothers – a fairytale story of perseverance drawn from their darkest memories and brightest dreams. 

While the storytelling process is captured in traditional documentary style, the tale the children are telling is animated, creating a hybrid-style film.

As their real and imagined worlds begin to converge, the children must choose what kind of story they will tell — in fiction, and in their own lives.
Winner of 35 awards, including Best Documentary at Los Angeles Film Festival and the Grand Prize at New York International Children’s Film Festival, Liyana is directed by Amanda Kopp and Eswatini-born and raised Aaron Kopp, who shot the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face and the Oscar-nominated The Hunting Ground. 

“I grew up in Swaziland and will always consider it my home,” says Kopp. “In part, this film is a love letter to my childhood in that beautiful African kingdom.”

He’s known the children in the film – Zweli, Sibusiso, Phumlani, Mkhuleko, and Nomcebo – for years. “During our research period for the film, we talked to the children about their early life before they came to the orphan home and quickly realised that asking them to revisit traumatic memories in front of a camera was not the path we wished to take,” he says. “Films about the suffering of Africans in which the audience is led to feel pity or guilt have been made before. In contrast, Liyana gives our young storytellers the stage and allows them to take charge of the narrative.”

In pre-production, Aaron spent time reading about creative art therapies as well as traditional stories in Eswatini. “It soon it became clear that the use of a fictional character, created by the children, could serve as a unique window into their memories and emotions, while still ensuring some privacy,” he says. “As soon as we decided on this approach, we contacted South African storyteller and author, Gcina Mhlophe. I first saw her on stage when I was a teenager and remember being transfixed by her performance. We knew she would be the perfect guide for the children in their creative process.”

The story the children choose to tell is both inspiringly imaginative and heartbreakingly close to home, but the animation by Nigerian Shofela Coker takes it to the next level.

Shofela Coker comes from a family of artists in Lagos, but moved to the States, graduating from Memphis College of Art and working in the games industry as a character artist and art director. He was working for Sony when the Kopps headhunted him for Liyana.  

“The kids’ personalities and ingenuity were inspiring and infectious,” says Coker. He watched a rough cut of the film, which convinced him to quit his job and join Liyana. “It reminded me of my childhood in Lagos, weaving stories with my siblings and improvising toys in the backyard with friends. The project seemed like such a special puzzle to solve, to help translate.”

The filmmakers didn’t want the animation to overpower the documentary scenes, so Coker says they came up with “the idea of a breathing painting that evokes the intimate feel of pop-up storybooks or shadow puppetry…”  The result has been widely praised and saw Shofela nominated for Outstanding Graphic Design or Animation at Cinema Eye this year. 

Liyana is executive produced by Emmy winner Thandie Newton (Westworld), produced by Oscar winner Daniel Junge (Saving Face), and edited by Davis Coombe (Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice). South African Emmy nominee Philip Miller (The Girl, Miners Shot Down) composed the score, a fusion of both Western and traditional Swazi instrumentation. 

Movie of the Week

Spenser Confidential – Coming soon to Netflix

Mark Wahlberg stars as Spenser, an ex-cop who gets called back to duty to solve a double murder of his former colleagues.

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Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) — an ex-cop better known for making trouble than solving it — just got out of prison and is leaving Boston for good. But first he gets roped into helping his old boxing coach and mentor, Henry (Alan Arkin), with a promising amateur. That’s Hawk (Winston Duke), a brash, no-nonsense MMA fighter convinced he’ll be a tougher opponent than Spenser ever was. When two of Spenser’s former colleagues are murdered, he recruits Hawk and his foul-mouthed ex-girlfriend, Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger), to help him investigate and bring the culprits to justice. From director Peter Berg, Spenser Confidential is an action-comedy co-starring Bokeem Woodbine, Marc Maron and Austin Post. Inspired by Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland, a best-selling novel by Ace Atkins.

Directed by: Peter Berg

Screenplay by: Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland

Based on Robert B. Parker’s “Wonderland”, by Ace Atkins

Produced by: Neal H. Moritz, Toby Ascher, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Peter Berg

The film will be released on 6 March and can be streamed here.

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Movie of the Week

SA movie on fake news heads for Sundance fest

Filmmakers and journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille will be the first South African directors to compete in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the film showcase in Park City, Utah, this month.

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Influence, a feature-length documentary film charting the rise and fall of the infamous London-based PR firm Bell Pottinger, will make its international debut at the 2020 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, on 27 January.

The film serves as a terrifying reminder of the dangers that lurk within the post-truth era, in which masters of misinformation use new digital tools to wage ancient propaganda wars — undermining the fabric of democratic societies. The film is co-directed by Diana Neille and Daily Maverick’s journalist-provocateur Richard Poplak.

According to the Sundance Institute, submissions reached a record high of 15,100, of which 3,853 were feature films. Among those, only 29% were created by female filmmakers.

Influence takes its cue from the #GuptaLeaks, a trove of emails investigated by a team from Daily Maverick, amaBhungane and News24. In mid-2017, they exposed Bell Pottinger’s role in engineering a racially divisive PR campaign designed to benefit the notorious Gupta family, and by extension former president Jacob Zuma. Several months later, due to unrelenting pressure from the media, civil society, opposition politicians and South African citizens, the once-unbeatable multinational was forced to close its doors. It was a David and Goliath tale of ordinary people facing off against a powerful corporation with near-infinite resources — an imbalance that has become all too familiar globally.

Neille says: “After following the story deep into the roots of modern geopolitical spin-doctoring, we discovered the fingerprints of Bell Pottinger’s founder, Lord Timothy Bell, on many of the world’s most formative political campaigns. We felt that if our viewers comprehensively travelled Bell’s journey since the 1970s, we would end up telling the story of influence and how it helped establish what we now call the post-truth era. It’s the context in which so many democracies around the world are now floundering.”

Influence is produced by Neil Brandt of Storyscope (SA) and Bob Moore of EyeSteelFilm (Canada). It is a South African/Canadian co-production, with backing from the Blue Ice Docs, Hot Docs Partners Fund, the Rogers Cable Network Fund, the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles, the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa, and Canada Media Fund. Broadcast rights are currently held by Arte (France/Germany), documentary Channel (Canada) and eTV (SA). Cinetic Media is handling world sales.

Brandt says: “As storytellers from the Global South who have always tried to speak truth to power, Storyscope was immediately drawn to the fact that Influence puts a uniquely African narrative at the centre of a global debate around the nature of truth in a world in which fact and fiction appear interchangeable. As Leonard Cohen put it, ‘there are cracks in everything — that’s how the light gets in’.”

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