Written and directed by Ghanaian filmmaker Samuel "Blitz" Bazawule and distributed by Ava DuVernay's ARRAY on Netflix, The Burial of Kojo is an art house film with a universal message that examines the impact of intersecting oppressions on a family. The film is told through the eyes of Esi (newcomer Cynthia Dankwa), a young girl trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of her father Kojo by deciphering her cryptic dreams and memories of his turbulent relationship with his brother, Kwabena. Rooted in magical realism, The Burial of Kojo follows Esi through a Ghanaian river village to the busy city, and to the dreamland in-between life and death, layering a coming-of-age story with the fantastic.
But one does not need to speak Fante or have been raised in Ghana for the story to resonate. Characters navigating family dynamics, guilt, love, and betrayal are universal. The heart of The Burial of Kojo is not a major historical event or a biopic--as is typical of on-screen depictions of Africa--but an everyday father-daughter relationship. Their strong bond is crucial to Esi finding her father and is reminiscent of the relationship between young Hushpuppy and Wink in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Similar to Quvenzhane Wallis’s Academy-Award nominated performance, portrayal, Dankwa provides an intuitive and instinctual performance as Esi. She and the rest of the film’s cast of newcomers, deliver genuine performances that ground this art-house fantasy film in a gritty reality.
The backdrop of Esi's story is the Ghanaian reality of living under Chinese imperialism, governmental corruption and police exploitation. Bazawule's Afrofuturistic approach to Ghanaian life reminds viewers to consider things like sewing machines as technological inventions that represent “future” and access in many people's experiences. Instead of envisioning cyborgs and robots as its technology reference, the film employs discussions of mining technology and industrialization and how these industries impact the environment and reinforce imperialism on locals. Viewers witness the Ghanaian characters engage in a futile battle against mining technology and those who wield it. Escape from these intersecting oppressions seems possible only in fantasy.
The subtlety in Bazawule's approach to Afrofuturism also appears in the film's presentation of spirituality. It's careful not to fetishize spirituality in the way the foreign gaze on African culture often does. The characters explore questions of survival and healing through a monotheistic lens rooted in their culture. Bazawule uses spirituality to explain figures and presences that aide the storytelling. It's a plot device, but it is also just life.
The Burial of Kojo is also a refreshing confluence of African artistry, capturing Ghana on screen in ways much more aligned with photographers, art directors, and videographers in the fashion, art and music worlds. The mesmerizing cinematography of Michael Fernandez is one of the critical ways The Burial of Kojo sets itself apart. When watching the film, revel in the rich skin tones and vibrant hued clothing, adorned through his lighting choices. The cinematography stands out within the landscape of Western cinema that customarily makes lighting, hair, make-up, and wardrobe choices that diminish darker skin tones. Blackness isn't just visible in the film; it's the reference point, the standard. The film's cinematography is more reminiscent of today's Afrobeats music videos than of typical Hollywood representations of Africa. The imagery and settings showcase the diverse experiences and landscapes of Ghana in ways that demonstrate a realistic understanding and appreciation for how Africans experience Africa. Where Hollywood lags behind in depicting African stories, The Burial of Kojo does a beautiful job of showing the industry how to catch up.
The Burial of Kojo’s soundtrack is another way the film stands out. It features original music composed by Bazawule under his emcee moniker, “‘Blitz the Ambassador.”’ He captures both nostalgia and suspense by drawing from Ghanaian Highlife music, Djembe drumming, rap, R&B, classical instrumentation, and spoken word. The soundtrack serves as a sonic narrative that accompanies Ezi's journey through the worlds of life and death.
The sonic achievement and innovative cinematography coupled with the Afrofuturistic tale of the power of a young girl's love make The Burial of Kojo an undeniably decadent and refreshing transformation of African cinema.