My Thoughts: The Burial of Kojo

A few days after I attended the première of Blitz Bazawule’s new film, “The Burial of Kojo” at Silverbird Cinemas, West Hills Mall, a couple of people who had also seen it brought it up in conversation with me. One called the movie “Okay; not amazing,” and I was astounded. Another remarked that although he’d recommend it, he wouldn’t see it a second time, and he later told me that many people seemed not to like the film very much. Now that I’d had a few minutes to sit with my initial shock at the first comment, I was able to respond less dramatically. I was, however, very disappointed, both with these people’s reactions and the new knowledge that several others shared their sentiments. As usual, I had been living in my mental bubble where the only opinions in existence were my own and my best friend’s—and this was one of the strange-but-delightful occasions where we were in complete unanimity that “The Burial of Kojo” was bloody excellent!

Blitz’ “The Burial of Kojo” is now my favorite African movie, and it has usurped Mambéty’s “Hyènes” from my mental throne. Although I hadn’t consciously realized it before “Hyènes” (1992) was overthrown, I’d been convicted that no African movie made after 2010 would ever be able to impress me like that one had. Shout-out to Blitz the Ambassador for proving me wrong! But the reason for my initial conviction, is, I think, the same reason that might explain the less-than-splendid reception among the Ghanaians around me. It’s more of a matter of the type and class of the movie than the quality itself that’s causing the contention. I’ll explain this better in subsequent paragraphs. First, let me talk about the movie itself and the things I liked most about it.

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Source: @TheBurialOfKojo on Twitter.

“The Burial of Kojo” is narrated entirely through the 1st-person perspective of a girl called Esi, who is a child during most of the movie’s depicted events. Esi is a smart little sweetheart who won my affection from the moment I saw her; relaxing on a canoe on still, calm and deserted waters with her father, Kojo, whom she clearly doted on. Esi, narrating the movie in a mature and retrospective tone, is clearly much older in the voice-overs than the version of her we see most often on the screen. Her narration (in English) is nearly omniscient. She’s able to tell us of things she was never physically present for, such as the courtship and marriage between her parents, and the squabbles between her father (Kojo) and his brother (Kwabena)—much of which took place prior to Esi’s own birth.

Although I am still not sure what “magical realism” really is, the term at least sounds like a fitting descriptor for the movie’s genre. “The Burial of Kojo” oscillates artfully between “magical” and “realistic” planes of storytelling, between what I hesitate to call two different worlds, simply because the worlds don’t seem separate enough from each other. On one hand, we’re watching Esi’s father, Kojo, struggle with important but difficult choices; on another hand we’re being made to engage with a folkloric plot of a little white bird being hunted down by an evil crow from an upside-down world, and Esi is the only heroine with the potential to save the white bird. But clasp your hands together, and it’s clear that these stories are one and the same.

I remember remarking to my best friend, perhaps quarter or halfway into the movie, that if “The Burial of Kojo” had been a novel, Nii Ayikwei Parkes would have written it. That’s because the movie, in terms of genre, reminded me a lot of Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird, and not just because of the common theme of birds. The stories are both seamless marriages between folklore and “real life.” This storytelling technique always impresses me because I am increasingly of the opinion that folklore always tells a truth, albeit presented in a deliberately in-credible manner. (Shameless plug: As someone who took a bunch of Kwaku Ananse characters and transformed them to “real life” characters in this series, after which I back-translated them all into folklore characters again in this podcast, I know what it means to have seemingly incongruous tales of the same events running side by side.)

This was, in fact, one of my favorite things about “The Burial of Kojo”: what seemed to be or should have been a single story was manifesting in several different ways at once. It was as if the filmmaker was forcing the audience’s minds wide open, making us uncomfortable by silently screaming at us to “See things this way! Now see things that way! Haha, joke’s on you, because both ways are inaccurate, and you should actually have been perceiving things like so!” But it was done in such an artful and engaging way that I was left in awe. Of course, there was the parallel between the birds and the humans, but there was also another, perhaps more minor plane brought in: At some point in the movie, Kojo, Esi and Ama (Kojo’s wife/Esi’s mother) attend a church service memorial whose sermon is on the Joseph of Genesis, whose brothers threw him in a well—something one might keep in mind as one witnesses Kojo chucked into a mine by “Kwabena,” his brother. This, my friends, is masterful storytelling. (In my opinion.) I don’t know how you can miss the brilliance. Besides, the plot felt like a simple quadratic equation that had me substituting letters for numbers and back again, and the answer was not what I expected in the end. That pleased me even more than it would have if I’d gotten the answer right!

There’s a lot more that made the film wholly enjoyable to me than the plot and its narration style; there were the visuals, the sound, and the emphasis on a small story.

First: visuals. The color grading as well as the choices for shooting venues produced a dreamlike effect that immersed me in the movie’s world. (Bear in mind, this essay is being written by a person who is used to metropolitan/urban African cities like Accra, Tema and Cape Town.) I have been to at least two of the non-Accra shooting venues of the film; namely, Shai Hills and Nzulezo. The calm waters and swaying forest trees, even the desert-like quality of the mine lands did something hypnotic and captivating to me—and that’s only one level on which the visuals impressed me.

The surreal beauty of some of the shots was absolutely breathtaking. Special mentions (because my best friend insists I add this) to the first, chilling shot we see of the “crow” in the upside-down world, riding on a horse like a huntsman straight out of Revelations. Behind this harbinger of death is a poignant purple dawn or dusk, and the humanoid crow’s presence is even more foreboding by virtue of the music that accompanies it: long, sustained notes in what I suspect (I may be wrong) was a minor chord progression. It was somewhat reminiscent of the suspenseful section of a Nollywood movie’s soundtrack. I got chills. Then there was the shot of Esi standing beneath an umbrella with sparks flying all around her—gorgeous! There was a nearly epiphanic scene where Esi found herself in a magical-looking fairyland, characterized by soft, purple hues—this was my favorite, although my bias for purple has a lot to do with that. And there were these shots of a yellowish house with stairs on either side of the main entrance. (There’s probably a single word for this but I’m not a videographer so I don’t know it:) The camera faced upwards from ground-level, such that the stairs looked like they were marking the edges of a funnel-like, 3-D “V” shape. It’s a more common camera technique than I realized at the time, but it was still cool. Oh, and of course, there was the drone shot of Esi running on a very long road to discover where her father had been buried.

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Source: @TheBurialOfKojo on Twitter.

The sound: impeccable. I could hardly believe Blitz when he told the crowd he’d only had about three days in France to compose and record all the music. The sound in “The Burial of Kojo” constituted at least 20% of my enjoyment of the experience. Such brilliance, crispness and appropriateness for every scene. It got my heart rate up every time the movie plot demanded I feel suspense; it had my skin crawling whenever the plot wanted me to be afraid; joyful in every happy scene. The score was perfect to me! (But how can I be surprised when the filmmaker and composer himself is a professional musician?)

The focus on a small story: one of the first things I remember reading/hearing about the movie, even before the crowdfunding was really underway, was that it was intentionally focused on a small, personal story. This was relevant in context because Kojo gets “buried” in a mine—and mines are significant social topics in Ghana, vis-à-vis galamsey (illegal mining) and the wave of colonization by Chinese people and their illegal affairs on our land. Given how serious a topic galamsey is, there is a dangerous expectation that, if a mine is a central element in a Ghanaian story, that story should critically engage and produce discourse on galamsey in its telling. Contrarily, while “The Burial of Kojo” makes references to Chinese people and the illegal practice, these are not the central foci of the movie. The small story of Kojo and his dilemma is allowed to breathe in its familial intimacy. In itself, it is enthralling, and it does not need the ruse of a national crisis topic to make it a story worth telling. (I’d like to throw in that I think the movie would not have had half the effect it did if Kojo had just fallen into some random hole or pit somewhere.) I appreciate this movie for all that it was and appreciate it just as much for not forcing itself to be something else.

Now, regarding my comment, several paragraphs above, about how the type of movie, rather than the quality of the movie, determined its reception among modern Ghanaian watchers: “The Burial of Kojo” was significantly different from most new Ghanaian movies I’ve seen roll out in the past few years, and especially in 2018, in terms of the artform, genre and story. Most Ghanaian cinema I’ve seen lately has one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Hyper-urban setting (where the urban city is Accra)
  • Great emphasis on Afrocentric wardrobe
  • “Street” narratives full of young, passionate characters and hip-hop culture
  • Modern, romantic drama
  • A cast featuring at least a few high-profile/veteran Ghanaian actors
  • Lack of concern with fantasy, folklore or anything outside of the “real” world
  • Often throwaway comedic relief characters and comedic subplots
  • Fast-paced and slightly dizzying

In contrast to this, “The Burial of Kojo” is quiet and profound, more focused on engrossing you in its world than providing a high-energy entertainment distraction, full of faces I have never seen before, sometimes with the barest minimum of character dialogue. (The funniest character was a police officer who, when tasked with searching for Kojo’s missing person, asks for something to “motivate the boys.” BTW, my best friend insists that I give special shout-out to him. So: shallouts to police guy!) To anyone who walked into the cinema with the fresh memory of recent releases on their minds, to anyone who has become very accustomed to modern mainstream-style Ghanaian movies, watching “The Burial of Kojo” was certain to be a deeply unsettling or, at the very least, mildly uncomfortable experience. Such discomfort can cause misplaced disappointment. (I acknowledge that I may be entirely wrong about the genre being a humungous factor, and maybe people didn’t like it just because they didn’t like it.) This movie doesn’t fall into the same categories as a Shirley Frimpong-Manso, Nicole Amarteifio, or Abstrakte productions, certainly not Ghallywood. (I’m speaking in terms of genre, not quality, so please don’t come and attack me for scales I didn’t create and things I didn’t say.) I’d categorize Blitz Bazawule within the leagues of the “classic” African cinema filmmakers; the likes of Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, perhaps Akosua Adoma Owusu? This kind of cinema, far from making it into popular-popular culture, tends to get locked in elite spaces such as film festivals and academic syllabi within the tiny, niche parts of rich Euro-American colleges’ Film and Media Studies departments. I blame colonialism, like I do for most things about the modern world which I hate.

My love for this movie doesn’t mean I have no critiques, but I will admit that my critiques are minor and probably inconsequential. There are two. Firstly, I was unsatisfied with the way all the main characters’ names were day names (Ama, Kojo, Esi, Kwabena). Even within the Fante filter, the names could have been much more creative. This creative choice is still very forgivable, even if paradoxical for a movie that otherwise expertly sidesteps the generic. Secondly, I kind of wish the characters hadn’t been and spoken Fante. I didn’t know this during the movie, but I was delighted to find out afterwards, during the Q&A session with the director, that Blitz Bazawule himself is from the Upper West region. I thought to myself how, especially for such an out-of-the-way cinematic endeavor, it would have been nice to have non-Akan ethnic prominence. But it is what it is, and perhaps, thematically, Fante was the best choice for this movie’s goals. Nothing really spoil.

Anyway, yeah. I absolutely loved “The Burial of Kojo” and would vouch for it all day any and err’day!

-Akotowaa 🙂

Kuukua and the Difficult Doors

Number Six!

(Update: individual OTC stories are no longer available, but you can download them all in a single PDF collection on my OTC site.)

Back of Kuukua and the Difficult Doors

Sneak peek?

Kuukua and the Difficult Doors

There were invisible threads on the ceiling now. My roommate Nana Konamah and I had gotten fed up. The architects of this hostel must have had some sort of sense impairment when they were designing, because this nonsense of the light switch being on one side of the room and the fan switch being on the opposite wall had been making our lives unnecessarily difficult. If the room was too hot or too cold during the night, NK would have to walk all the way to my side to regulate the fan speed. If she fell asleep with the light on, I would have to walk all the way to her side to turn it off. I’d never liked sitting down and doing nothing about problems that could so easily be solved with thread, so now our room had a very small-scale version of the complex thread system I had built in my room back home. It proved immensely helpful in instances just like this one…

“Felicia is coming!” NK whispered urgently. The next second, I pulled a string from my bed and the light went off. NK hadn’t even had to sit up.

“Don’t say anything,” I warned Princess, who was beside me in the dark now.

It was way past lights-out, and I was exhausted, but I’d promised Princess I’d help her with her physics homework when I had time. It turned out 11 p.m. was the earliest I’d been free enough to help anyone on a Monday night, and Princess wasn’t even the first person I was helping tonight. I was not, however, ready to get in trouble for it with Felicia, my hostel prefect. I already did enough weeding and gardening throughout the normal week; I wasn’t about to add gutter scrubbing to my schedule just because I’d decided to be a nice, helpful classmate.

I heard Felicia’s footsteps as she did a brief walk-through, passing in front of all the rooms in the building. If she didn’t see lights or hear voices, she just moved past each door after a few seconds. I listened keenly, made sure she was way out of sight and hearing before I pulled another string and the lights switched back on.

“Ahahn, so which question were we on?” I asked Princess, suppressing a yawn. But Princess’ mind was far from Newton’s laws of motion at that moment.

“How did you do that, with the light?” she asked with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

“Magic, anaa?” I replied, bored, irritable, and tired.

“Kuukua, be serious.”

“I thought everyone knew I’m a witch by now. See eh, let’s continue with the distin. It’s due tomorrow morning, and frankly, m’abrɛ.

“So you won’t explain?”

“Ei, Princess. Do you want to finish this homework or not?”

Her facial expression reflected the struggle she was going through, trying to rationalize what had just happened, but then she gave up, clearly also weary and looking forward to sleeping. “Fine. Let’s continue.”

“Great. So, we know that force is equal to mass times acceleration….”

I could have explained – at least about the spider-silk thread – but that would have led to even more questions. How did I know how to build this switch-flipping system? Why was the thread invisible? Where did one acquire spider-silk thread? Why did I have my very own pet spider?

I wasn’t ashamed of the strangeness that came with being the future Ananse, but truthful explanations were long. Claiming the rumor my cousin had started – that I was a witch – was much easier. So was evasion.

I turned the lights off again when Princess went back to her room. I hoped she wouldn’t get caught breaking curfew.

I thought NK was already asleep, so I was surprised when I heard her say, “Wo dwen sɛ wo yɛ Kwaku Ananse.”

When I heard that, I sat up briskly, my heart hammering loudly in my chest.

“What did you just say?”

“You think you’re Kwaku Ananse. It’s something my mother says a lot to me and my siblings whenever we try to get away with messing with someone. Because, you know, Kwaku Ananse was a trickster.”

“Interesting.” I let the silence breathe and tried to process.

“You remind me of him, though. Kwaku Ananse. Except you’re cleverer. From the stories Mummy told me, the way Kwaku is always getting outsmarted, he doesn’t seem particularly intelligent to me.”

“That’s what Ntikuma wants you to think,” I muttered, repeating my father’s words after the last time he’d told me an Ananse story.

“Pardon?”

“Erm. Nothing.”

NK didn’t know about me being the future Ananse – but she knew almost as much about my quirks as my grandpa, my father and my boyfriend. I’d only known her for about three months, but it was a consequence of living together. My room was the only place I could do some of the weirder assignments my father set for me.

The previous week, for example, I’d spent hours on end at my desk trying to master the process of extracting only the sticky kind of silk from my orb weaver spider, Charlotte, and turning it into spider glue. My grandfather, who used to be a chemist, would videocall me sometimes to teach me how to make varying kinds of spider glue, from mildly sticky to stuff stronger than wood glue. After she’d witnessed everything I’d messed around with at my desk, keeping the Ananse definition and its relation to my family from my roommate felt incredibly stupid.

 

NK had helped me construct the web. It would have been a struggle otherwise, because I didn’t have access to ladders, and the only movable furniture in the room were our desk chairs, and they simply weren’t tall enough. But I’d had to get on the ceiling somehow. As I’d struggled to think of how to manage it, NK had looked at me and said, “Kuukua, don’t you ever think of the body as a tool?”

“The body as a tool?” I’d repeated.

“Yeah. Same as a ladder or a hammer or something.”

“I use my hands and fingers a lot.”

“You use them to manipulate things you consider tools. But you’re always looking for things. Machines. Sometimes, the thing you need the most is a functional human body.”

“Sista, why are you speaking in parables?”

She’d laughed, then extracted her chair from under her desk. She’d knelt down in front of it, and at first, I was on edge because I thought she was bowing down to me or something, but then she instructed, “Get on my shoulders.”

I did. Then she got on the chair and stood upright, and when I raised my hands, I could reach the ceiling with ease.

Installation had taken more time than it would have if I’d had a ladder, because Nana Konamah needed to take breaks from holding me up. It was altogether a precarious situation, but I was used to precariousness. Yaw would have said, “A week that passes where Kuukua doesn’t put herself in danger of breaking her neck at least once, is that one too a week?”

 

And for the rest of the story, download via the link at the top of the post. Happy reading!

-Akotowaa

I met Jamilla Okubo, and that was fun.

Yo, she’s so cool!

I met her the day after the Jon Bellion concert, so of course, I was already beat. By the end of this day, I knew I was going to be exhausted. But at least the exhaustion was voluntary. Sometimes, I feel like my soul is dying and art is the only thing that can revive it. So seeing Jon Bellion and Jamilla Okubo in the span of two days was so uplifting, I didn’t even mind the exhaustion much.

My Africana Studies professor brought her to the college. The former found the latter on AfroPunk years ago. (I’m just sayin’ y’all. Get yourselves on the internet. You too could be fresh out of college getting paid by colleges.)

Jamilla Okubo is an American, Kenyan, Trinidadian artist.

Because I’m a very sensible creep, I looked Jamilla Okubo up a little while before she was due to show up. Her Instagram story was full of videos about her arrival and first impressions of California, and a few words about herself and what her Californian mission was. In the midst of this stalking, I heard her say something that really shocked me: she’d just graduated only a few months back. Ah. I went to replay that section of the story. So, I reasoned, she must be only a few years older than me. And she was flying halfway across the USA to do an art workshop with and talk to college students. Hmm. (This is the part where I fiercely battle an inferiority complex.) A few hours later, I attended her more formal talk. There I got the confirmation I’d been waiting for: she was fresh out of college, and about five years older than me (due to circumstances, she’d had to do six years of tertiary education instead of four).

In the late morning, she held a workshop, which was when I first saw and interacted with her in person. Her air of complete casualness and comfort threw me off guard. I’d expected someone assertive and instructive. Instead, I got a super chill girl who was interested in sharing (as opposed to instructing) and conversation (as opposed to lecturing or monologuing.) Straight away, I knew I liked her as a human being. I want to be that kind of artist.

During the hour and a half workshop, Jamilla showed us some of the dope art she’d created, allowing us to pass the pieces around between ourselves. Then, she walked us through a simple method of creating new pictures from existing images, using tracing paper, markers and coloured/patterned paper. It was very simple, but loads of fun. It was great to set aside some time to just sit there, create and conversate, with nothing much banking on it. So I made a thing! In Akotz’ signature colors, too!

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Behold: my product.
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Behold: my process. And yeah, that’s Nina Simone.

Okubo has been gifted with a different kind of environments than many of the rest of us. her mother’s African-American, her maternal grandmother was literally a cotton-picker. Her dad, who’s Trinidadian and Kenyan, lives in Nairobi. Her mother had encouraged her throughout adolescence to be actively engaged in all sorts of arts, and it hadn’t even been a problem going off to study arts and design for tertiary education. I loved hearing and seeing how much her family influenced her art – and also the Kenyan culture that she was slightly estranged from. The way she would call her father and ask many questions about what the culture was like reminded me of the way I worry my grandfather to explain his childhood and various aspects of being Ewe to me.

I also especially like remixes – in several forms. the kind of remixing that Okubo specializes in is reinterpretation of Kenyan Kanga fabrics. First of all, before she gave her talk, I’d never even heard of Kanga, but now that I have, I think it’s incredible how beautiful and malleable a piece of tradition it is – case in point, how Okubo makes collages with cutouts and inserts inscriptions like the phrases her grandmother likes to say often.

Allow me to direct you to her Tumblr.

And she showed us this dope video that she helped make (she’s the creature without facial features zooming around like she just landed from space).

One thing that inspires me a lot is seeing black artists flourishing through the education that They (you know, The Man, the people in the Control Room) seem to require that we go through, living life in the present, as life demands to be lived, not “waiting” for anything first like graduation, certificates, approval, marriage, steady income engagement…Living one’s career presently. Which is what I want to do. Which is what I hope I’m doing.

So here she is, straight out of college, already having designed packaging for brands, illustrated a profound children’s book, and is currently doing lit stuff that those of us who now follow her are probably going to see very soon and marvel over. And seeing young, black, African-descended girls killin’ it and not being hella broke while killin’ it brings me such joy.

So yeah, anyway, I just thought I’d share about the experience of having some artistic African light penetrating my life for a while, especially because it left me with a fierce sense of hope that made me think, “Yes! It can be done! It is being done! I can do this life thing, and so can you!” Hope is great.

Stay creative,

Akotz the Spider Kid.