By Glenn Kenny
When musicians turn to film directing, it doesn’t always work out. Ask anyone who’s seen Bob Dylan’s nearly-five-hour musical romance “Renaldo and Clara” (although that oddity does have its wary admirers).
But it more than works out with “The Burial of Kojo,” written, directed and scored by Blitz Bazawule, a Ghana-born musician now based in New York who traveled back to his birth country to make this dazzling modern fable.
The movie opens with a simple, striking shot, that of a Volkswagen Beetle on a beach, burning as the tide laps its tires. The film’s narrator, Esi, speaking in English (the dialogue itself is mostly in Twi), talks of her father, and of a “dream that is not a dream.” She guides the viewer over a village built on water, with wooden stilts holding up the houses. She says that her birth “was supposed to bring prosperity and good fortune to my family.”
“The Burial of Kojo” shows Esi as a child — played with an impressive quietude by Cynthia Dankwa — trying to live up to expectations. The action around her is enigmatic and fraught with mysticism. She is entrusted, by a blind old man, with the care of an ostensibly sacred white bird. But at night she dreams of a crow, or rather, a man in a crow costume, first seen upside-down. These ancient symbolic elements are contrasted with a blurry telenovela (created especially for this film) that Esi sometimes watches idly with her mother, whose presence in the family is irregular. The loose narrative becomes tighter when Esi’s uncle enters the family’s life and tries to tempt her father with a get-rich-quick scheme. The brothers look with disdain and fear at Chinese businessmen and laborers now exploiting the underground riches of their land. But that’s about the only thing that the brothers see eye-to-eye on.
The movie thrives on the juxtaposition of timeless and modern imagery — the burning car on the shore, a real crow perched on a cellphone tower, and more. The frames are often suffused with monochromatic light, washing the characters in red or purple. And while overhead drone shots are becoming a too-easy convention in contemporary film, their use here is refreshingly different, capturing almost surrealistically colorful landscapes.
The family-conflict story line brings to mind Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger.” The director loves the faces of his actors as much as the documentarian Khalik Allah (“Black Mother”) loves the faces of his subjects. And the movie’s bold colors sometimes recall those of the African visionary Djibril Diop Mambéty (“Touki Bouki”).
But these are more affinities than echoes. Bazawule has a cinematic voice of his own, one with a very direct relation to musical rhythm. The way he will establish a view with one shot and then cut into a tighter view of the same shot has the poise of a great dance move. The movie’s rare but crucial instances of violence have a heart-skipping impact achieved through a perfect meshing of staging and editing.
The cutting is complemented by the music, which has flavors of Afrobeat and hip-hop but also more conventional cinema scoring. “The Burial of Kojo” is a near-virtuoso work, a feast of emotion, nuance and beauty, and a startling feature directing debut.
The Burial Of KojoNYT Critic’s Pick
Director: Sam Blitz Bazawule
Writer: Sam Blitz Bazawule
Stars: Ama K. Abebrese, Joe Addo, Henry Adofo, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Brian Angels
Running Time: 1h 20m
Genres: Drama, Thriller