Before the lights dim and the ads play, we know that Kojo is dead. The question of whether this death resolves anything in the plot is largely perfunctory. Instead, the art within The Burial of Kojo, screened at last week’s BlackStar Film Festival, is mediated through the notion of death itself, through the acts and stages of transcendence.
The Burial of Kojo is Ghana-born director Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule’s first feature-length film. Through the movie's 80-minute runtime, we pass from tedious tranquility to desperate urbanity. Its potpourri of themes center the remorse of the titular Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) and the pure heart of his young daughter Esi (Cynthia Dankwa).
A combination of guilt and a need for more money propel the plot. The film’s relatable elements are carried on the back of Otsiman’s fatigued everyman, and narrator Ama Abebrese’s confident mysticism. But the real star of the show is Bazawule’s use of gorgeous near-static images, evocative colors, and surreal symbology, filling the latent desire for motion. And when that motion does come, particularly the repeated reorientation of upside down to right side up and vice versa, the viewer feels at home within the camera. This makes every shift feel like one of seismic importance.
This doesn’t mean acting isn’t important, but here it’s possible (save for a few moments) for the movie to have no plot at all. To this extent, the actors seem to function more as models for a painter, props for Bazawule’s potent iconographic vision.
When moments of narrative tension and release do make themselves known, the results are memorable even if we’re unsure of the purpose they serve. For instance, Kojo’s anguished eating of a cockroach serves the mind a lingering image through which the viewer can filter the images leading up to that point, as disturbing as that may be.
Despite flaws, a visual feast
The film has many powerful images, like a Volkswagen Beetle set aflame, but the occasional decision to stray away from these images is puzzling and undermining. One example is a visceral scene between two brothers fighting shot in ultra-high definition, a collection of limbs and faces moving and twisting and hitting. It is masterful. But for one shot during this sequence, Bazawule decides to shoot a drowning scene from under the water with a GoPro-like quality, giving us an artifact-heavy and poorly lit look at the drowning boy’s face. The forced and artificial result pulls the viewer away. Technical glitches like this happen a few times throughout the film.
Which leads us to the other glaring flaw within Kojo: the use of a telenovela to iterate plot points. Perhaps these scenes are intended as a form of comic relief, or as a way of putting the viewer within the mindset of a character, but it mostly just looks grainy and cheesy. I wouldn’t be surprised if these were added simply to make the project feature-length, as they look cheap and thrown together.
Ultimately, The Burial of Kojo, despite some hiccups, gives us a visual feast and a few lasting moments that more than make it worth a night at the movie theater.
What, When, Where
The Burial of Kojo. Written and directed by Blitz Bazawule. Screened on August 3, 2019, at the BlackStar Film Festival at Lightbox Film Center, 3710 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (267) 603-2755 or BlackStarfest.org.
Lightbox Film Center is an ADA-accessible venue. Please use the ramp on the east side of International House Philadelphia to enter the building, then use the ramp to enter the Ibrahim Theater through the East Alcove. Inquire at the front desk about the availability of assisted listening devices.