'The Burial of Kojo' review

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Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, Array, came through in a big way for Ghanaian indie film ‘The Burial of Kojo’, providing final push that is sure to put Brooklyn-based Ghanaian filmmaker Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule on the radar of cinephiles globally.

Picked up by Netflix for select territories, and on VOD in others, the journey of Bazawule’s surrealist family drama began with him rallying film fans globally to support his vision via a successful Kickstarter campaign.

That Bazawule is the brain behind the African Film Society comes with its own brand of expectations for the initiated. From the outside looking in, he's an artist with idiosyncratic tendencies and an inspired cineliteracy. Bazawule’s reverence for icons of African cinema like Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety make his accomplished feature debut unsurprising.

And it's not just a demonstration of promise. Bazawule is winning on multiple levels here; most importantly his deft script. ‘The Burial of Kojo’ starts with a mystery rooted in an ethereal plane. When we start to interrogate this mystery and what it means, we then realise it stops being as important because Bazawule is concerned not just with the journey but the shape of the journey.

At its core, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ is a film about the bond between a girl and her father, and the sense of inevitability that defines it. The buoyant Esi (Cynthia Dankwa), seemingly wiser than her years, cherishes the time she spends with her soft-spoken father, Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) in the stillness of their stilted river village. Life on the calm and scant countryside is all the blissfully content Esi knows. On the other hand, her mother (Mamley Djangmah) cuts an unstable presence, torn between her family the, penury of the village and the magnetic vibrancy of urban life.

Esi’s innocent charm is endearing but it is her perspective that really opens up this world. There is a brooding sense of melancholia as the film takes more fantastical turns. It’s high praise indeed that Guillermo Del Toro’s masterful ‘Pans Labyrinth’ readily came to mind. Bazawule crafts a stunning vision of death in this eerily familiar upside-down dimension that heightens Esi’s perception of her rural domesticity. The little girl knows its only a matter of time before spirit and the physical collide.

There are a lot of gears spinning in this narrative. Despite the deceptively simple story, there is a fascinating complexity to the structure of the film that is finely balanced. Aside from the fantastical elements that are ushered in by Esi, the heavy subjectivity of this film is reinforced by the fact she also serves as a narrator eager to meander through time and space.

Pivotal beats to the story are also being composed in Kojo’s head. Flashbacks paint a picture of a man almost eaten to the bone by grief and guilt. We come to learn the only link between him and his brother is a painful tragedy revolving around a girl they both loved. Kojo’s brother (Kobina Amissah-Sam) looms large over Kojo’s decision to uproot his family from the village to stay with his mother (Anima Misa) in an unnamed town.

Bazawule tries to ride the wave of ambiguity as the narrative unravels. This is intriguing in parts, especially when he subtly makes sure we are on the same page with a concise visual language. Reality remains tethered to the fears that manifest in our characters’ ominously uncanny visions. Unfortunately, he doesn’t stick the landing; jarringly resorting to bare-faced exposition as if losing faith in his method and asking for forgiveness for being a tad too obtuse.

‘The Burial of Kojo’ purposeful haziness extends to its stellar cinematography (by Michael Fernandez) and camera work; where it dithers between simply composed frames to ambitious maneuvers that reflect psyche. Bazawule displays an impressive eye, accompanied by great instincts behind the camera to deliver one of my favorite shots this year; a brilliantly drawn out 360-degree tilt that plays with our perception of the film’s unstable reality as Esi’s fears gain a foothold in the real world.

Simpler but still beautifully shot compositions manage to convey depth, highlighting other contrasts like the still countryside and the hustle of urban Ghana. The serenity of time spent in canoes on the calm lake is replaced by the reckless precision of taxi drivers. In Bazawule’s eyes, the village life is untainted and singed with a palpable freshness that permeates through the screen, unlike in the town in which pollution features in the subtext given time spent with heavy smokers and the like.

The worldview of ‘The Burial of Kojo’ expands considerably as the story progresses. True to the blueprint of African cinema, socio-political issues are woven into the tapestry of the narrative. We never stray far away from neo-colonialism and the shadow of China’s growing influence in Africa, expatriate exploitation in the marketplace and the scourge of illegal mining; the latter of which Kojo gets in bed with, seemingly betraying the bond he had with nature in simpler times.

The script finds time for playful moments introducing a satirical layer that has to do with hilariously-realised telenovela that Esi and her grandmother are engrossed in. But despair lurks behind this levity as Bazawule also uses this indulgence, about two brothers fighting over a girl, to place under the microscope the almost pathological relationship between Kojo and his brother.

Such is the richness of this script that I could go on and on about the layers that give ‘The Burial of Kojo’ so much life and energy. Bazawule milks more out of setting than the entire catalogue of Ghanaian cinema in the last decade. The vague locations feel familiar and lived in but our director is constantly looking for new ways through which we can experience them.

The film is far from perfect. The small budget is evident in the unsteady attempts to convey epic scale or the welcome original score. As good as this script is, there were lags and some chaff. Though our director gets a finely tuned performance Otsiman, he doesn't fully realise his attempt to convey the guilt that haunts Kojo in a key moment; unlike the manner in which he executes Esi’s dances with ominous harbingers.

Flaws notwithstanding, there is so much to like here. I’m excited by Bazawule's prowess as a screenwriter and his clever handling of structure. As open-ended as ‘The Burial of Kojo’ gets, its coda is punctuated with a tight bow that forces us to accept the humanity of what is right in front of us. All that will matter in the end is the telling of the story, its associated emotions and memory in this summation of a spiritual dread that defines a daughter’s bond with her father.

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delalibessa@yahoo.com

Photo courtesy of The Burial Of Kojo/Array

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