Award-winning film Liyana
February 18, 2019

With the Oscars coming up on Feb. 24, movies are on a lot of people’s minds. Movies are almost always on the minds of husband-and-wife filmmakers Aaron Kopp (BFA ’09) and Amanda Kopp (BFA ‘08).

The College of Arts & Media (CAM) grads produced and directed the award-winning and internationally acclaimed film, “Liyana.” A visually stunning, genre-defying documentary, “Liyana” was born from projects the Kopps began as students.

Documentary and animation join forces

‘Liyana’ achievements

Liyana” tells the story of children in the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), who turn life in an orphanage into an imaginative fable of a girl who embarks on a heroic journey to save her brothers.

The film weaves documentary and animation with memorable storytelling. It has won more than 30 awards from international audiences and juries and screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the British Film Institute in London. The Oscar-qualifying theatrical release opened in fall 2018, playing in more than 50 cities across the United States, including Denver’s Sie Film Center.

“Animation and storytelling have given us the freedom to get to intimacy and truth in ways that traditional documentary cannot,” Aaron said.

Student creative work evolves into something bigger

While “Liyana” has been almost 10 years in the making, its true inception was at CU Denver. Aaron was studying Film & Television, while Amanda was pursuing a Visual Arts degree in painting and drawing.

Aaron, who was born in the United States and grew up in Eswatini, had created a documentary for his senior project called “Likhaya.” The film tells the story of women and children living in Eswatini, the African country with the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rate. “Likhaya” won the 2009 Audience Award at the Denver International Film Festival.

At the same time, Amanda was working on her senior thesis, a series of paintings inspired by the imaginations of the children they know in Eswatini.

“Liyana” incorporates animation and fantasy stemming from Aaron’s film and Amanda’s creative concept.

Close-up of animated film star, Liyana
Husband-and-wife filmmakers Aaron Kopp (BFA ’09) and Amanda Kopp (BFA ‘08) created the genre-defying film Liyana together.

Finding your voice as an artist

“Liyana” on-campus screening

March 7, 5 p.m., Tivoli Community Theater
Reception and Q&A session hosted by filmmakers Amanda and Aaron Kopp
RSVP required

Aaron, who also received an Emmy Award nomination for his work on the Oscar-winning film, “Saving Face,” credits his success to his experience as a student in the Film & Television department.

He praises the hands-on approach to education. Students start right away working with cameras, making movies and learning how to express their creative visions.

“The balance of theory and practical application provided the framework for me to grow into the filmmaker that I wanted to be,” he said. “As an artist, you need to find your own voice, and the way you do that is by creating work.”

When students work alongside industry experts

Here are two career turning points for award-winning filmmaker Aaron Kopp:

  • Film history classes with Associate Professor of Television, Film and Video Production and NPR Film Critic Howie Movshovitz
  • Working on location in India with Associate Professor of Television, Film and Video Production Craig Volk, who, among other accomplishments, worked on the Emmy Award-winning series “Northern Exposure”

“The professors have great practical industry experience that really benefitted me,” Aaron said. “Being able to ride their coattails a little bit and to shape a professional relationship is a big part of where I am today.”

After graduation, Aaron worked closely on a project with Associate Professor of Television, Film and Video Production Hans Rosenwinkel, whom he considers a mentor. Rosenwinkel asked Aaron to help film a 13-part television series in China called “Expedition China: Search for Shangri La.” The series ended up being distributed by Discovery Channel and National Geographic International.

How to become a successful filmmaker

Aaron has mentored aspiring filmmakers through the summer Lynx Camps. His advice to film students?

“Dig deep and take your time at CU Denver seriously. Each decision you make, you have no idea where it might lead. Each opportunity in front of you, even while you are in college, can have an enormous effect on your eventual career. Make the most of it. Take advantage of every little second. And make great stuff.”

Contributors: Alice Crogan, College of Arts & Media; Meme Moore, University Communications; Amy Ventura, University Communications

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