Everyday Magic: Blitz Bazawule’s “The Burial of Kojo”
The Burial of Kojo opens with a near-perfect shot. The scene is played as a fever dream, a recurrent one that haunts the film’s titular character. An old Volkswagen Beetle burns brightly on a beach, the idle waters doing little to stop the flames from licking every inch of the vehicle. If Alfonso Cuarón mastered the technical aspects of shooting the beach scene in his Oscar-winning Roma (2018), then Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule, a Ghanaian hip-hop and visual artist, directing his feature-length debut with The Burial of Kojo (2018), has figured out how to make sea, sky, and sand sing in perfect harmony with his vision of magical realism.
According to the narrator Esi — played as an adult by Ghanaian actress Ama K. Abebrese, who retains a playful hint in her voice, and as a child, with a wide-eyed sensitivity, by newcomer Cynthia Dankwa — Kojo’s dream doubles as a memory, one of a traumatic event that occurred seven years before and has managed to put his life on hold for an equal period of time.
Thankfully, dreams have their uses, and so do memories. Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) moves far away from the city to a settlement surrounded by water with houses built on struts. It is here that Kojo meets Ama (Mamley Djangmah), who agrees to marry him. The result of their union is Esi, a bright, sensitive lass, who assumes the film’s central core and becomes the lens through which the audience encounters the events of The Burial of Kojo.
These events are split between the physical, metaphysical, and the spiritual, and flit wildly across timelines, juxtaposing past and present. The screenplay written by Bazawule, however, is never less than coherent, beginning with a simple set up that morphs into layers of concerns relating to the African continent.
The Burial of Kojo’s plotting may be intricate, but what makes Bazawule’s work stand out easily from the Netflix pack — Ava DuVernay’s Array distributes it — is the incredible visual energy that is on display. From the first shot, Bazawule and cinematographer Michael Fernandez launch a relentless assault on the senses, particularly the visual and aural. Lacking the deep pockets that would be available to many a Hollywood filmmaker, Bazawule’s bold and colorful vision powers him through the limitations of budget and infrastructure.
For decades, Africa has been depicted on the big screen, even by those who should know better, as a land of desolation and deprivation, but Bazawule’s unique gaze serves as a kind of corrective, for it locates beauty in the neglected ordinary. Shots of big sky, which are sometimes inverted, and vast greenery, with frogs croaking in the background, are followed by those of old yellow buses and electricity meters depicting relatable moments seen in every African society from Accra to Zanzibar.
Bazawule’s love and respect for the land of his birth is evident in the tenderness with which he presents the imagery of The Burial of Kojo, each shot telling a different story of the continent. All of it is set to a haunting score — also credited to Bazawule, who performs music as Blitz the Ambassador — that uplifts and torments in turns.
While a less attentive gaze might have focused on low-hanging fruit, such as conflict and disaster, The Burial of Kojo takes inspiration from the oral traditions that inspired storytelling in the earliest iterations of Ghanaian societies and molds a warm, brightly tuned lyrical experience that does justice to the coming-of-age story at the center of the film.
The title hints of death lurking around the corner. The inciting character in this regard is Kojo’s estranged brother Kwabena (Kobina Amissah-Sam), who locates the family in their self-imposed idyllic exile and lures them back to the big city with vague promises of economic empowerment. This visit coincides with Esi’s vision of a blind shaman who hands her a gift of a sacred white bird for safekeeping from a black crow.
Both events are not particularly grounded in the physical, and indeed part of the joy of seeing The Burial of Kojo lies in discovering how Bazawule is able to weave a hypnotic spell that takes artistic license with form and structure, experimenting with worlds temporal and spiritual. This amount of freedom runs the risk of falling into self-indulgent territory, especially for a first-time filmmaker, but The Burial of Kojo surprisingly remains grounded within the auteur’s specificity.
This is not to say that The Burial of Kojo is unambitious, or that there is a scarcity of themes that the film considers. Within the lean running time — 80 minutes — The Burial of Kojo considers both the personal and the political. The grown-up Esi, haunted by her family’s dark and violent legacy, exorcises her demons through her memories and her writing — although the lingering guilt never really fades from her and the narrative’s central characters. Moreover, her relationship with her dad, a tender ne’er-do-well, is a framework for considering the bonds that exist between fathers and daughters.
Broader issues like police corruption, scrambling for natural resources as a traumatic by-product of colonization, the recent Chinese business dominance on the continent, and Western soft power deployment by way of telenovelas from South America are all on Bazawule’s mind. So is the question of Ghanaian identity in the face of this complete assault on the culture.
The Burial of Kojo may be a film about Ghana — characters speak in English and Twi — but it is also a film about Africa and points the way for the kind of robust homegrown cinema that can emerge when self-reflective artists, curious about the world and their place in it, look within their imaginations as well as their surroundings for the wonders and magic that are part of everyday living. The Burial of Kojo is pretty shrewd about this, from the way that Fernandez’s monochromatic glow lights up black faces and bodies, to the effective arrangement of space and consideration of the ancestral plane in contemporary living.
The Burial of Kojo is simply proof that no matter how traumatic life gets, beauty exists in this world and the hereafter.
Blitz Bazawule’s The Burial of Kojo is now streaming on Netflix.