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.
“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.
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!