'The Burial of Kojo': Film Review

Courtesy of Ofoe Amegavoe/Direct Current Mgmt, LLC and ARRAY
A gorgeous debut that makes myths without grandiosity.

A Ghanaian girl navigates a spirit realm to help her father in Blitz Bazawule's feature debut.

Ghanaian native Blitz Bazawule, who has recorded several hip-hop records as Blitz the Ambassador and now lives in Brooklyn, returns to his homeland for The Burial of Kojo, a striking feature filmmaking debut about a young girl coming to understand her father's tragic past. More about a magical sense of place than about its action or even its narrator (the grown-up version of that girl), the film will play well to American art house audiences who want something other than life-is-hard realism from African cinema.

The title character has lived for years in a small village built on stilts in the middle of a lake. In a voiceover that will run throughout the light-on-dialogue film, Kojo's daughter Esi (voiced as an adult by Ama K. Abebrese, played as a child onscreen by Cynthia Dankwa) explains: Something bad happened to him in his youth, and he fled his inland hometown feeling that only "water could cleanse the past."

Around the time Esi is telling us of her father's fondness for stories whose beginnings only make sense if you know how they end, an appropriately cryptic event sets her own story in motion: A blind man paddles up to Esi's village and entrusts her with the care of a white "sacred bird" he says is being hunted by an evil crow. The birds and the man hail "from the realm in-between," a transitional place where everything is upside down — and of the film's plentiful startlingly beautiful images, many will evoke this realm somehow, sometimes inverting action that is mirrored by the lake, sometimes playing footage to make smoke or flame move, almost imperceptibly, backward.

Esi hasn't yet started to grasp the significance of this netherworld when Kojo's estranged brother Kwabena arrives, coaxing the family back to dry land. Kwabena is the reason Kojo fled — on the day he was to marry the woman both of them loved, Kojo somehow caused an accident that killed her — but he wants to put the past behind them, and encourages Kojo to join him in a dangerous-sounding moneymaking scheme. Kwabena wants them to sneak into a gold mine that has been abandoned by a defunct mining company; Kojo balks at the risk, saying he only needs "something small" to get his family out of their current money woes.

As the two men gently debate this over the course of days, Esi becomes a fan of the fictional Mexican telenovela her grandmother watches: Puebla Mi Amor, which stars two brothers who clash violently over the woman they both love. Despite the heavy foreshadowing (not to mention the film's title), the incident that dooms Kojo may shock viewers with its abrupt violence.

While Esi's mother pursues reality-bound answers to her husband's mysterious disappearance, the girl's own quest is more in sync with a film where dreams have the weight of fact, however ambiguous their meanings. Viewers may worry that Bazawule's starkly gorgeous pictures aren't going to add up to anything, but Burial satisfies in prosaic as well as poetic terms, supplying an end that makes sense of its beginning. It will leave many who see it eager for the young filmmaker's next fable.

Production companies: Wheel Barrow Productions, African Film Society
Distributor: Array Releasing
Cast: Cynthia Dankwa, Ama K. Abebrese, Joseph Otsiman, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Mamley Djangmah, Henry Adofo, Joyce Anima Misa Amdah
Director/screenwriter/composer: Blitz Bazawule
Producers: Ama K. Abebrese, Blitz Bazawule
Executive producers: Jesse Williams
Director of photography: Michael Fernandez
Production designer: Selorm Dotse Kudiabor
Costume designer: Afriyie Frimpong
Editor: Kwaku Obeng Boateng

In Twi and English
80 minutes