Thandie Newton’s ‘Liyana’ is the animated documentary about orphaned children in Swaziland


A group of young children in Swaziland use the power of storytelling to work through personal traumas. The result: Liyana, a documentary about a fictional young girl of the same name, told through the children’s voiceovers and a moving painting-style animation. It’s an hybridisation of elements that works.

Newton, known for her role as Olanna in the adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of A Yellow Sun and her Emmy-nominated performance as Maeve Millay in HBO’s Westworld, says she was attracted to the documentary in part because of what the story will represent for African children. “If this young girl can be victorious, then it’s possible for everyone to overcome their fears. Liyana is from rural Africa and these kids have catapulted her onto the main stage of a place none of them ever dreamt they’d find themselves.”

Newton’s association with the project springs from her African roots: the British-born actress’ mother is from Zimbabwe. But assembling the story for the screen was challenging and the final form came together during the editing. Per the synopsis, five children from Swaziland collaborate to craft a collective fairytale drawn from their darkest memories and brightest dreams.


Titular character Liyana is brought to life in innovative animated artwork as she embarks on a perilous quest to rescue her young twin brothers. The children’s real and imagined worlds begin to converge, and they must choose what kind of story they will tell – in fiction and in their own lives. Directed by award-winning filmmakers and cinematographers Aaron and Amanda Kopp, the acclaimed movie has won 26 festival awards and has premiered at over 80 festivals, with critics hailing the film as an important, moving work. Liyana hits select American theaters on October 10.

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