The musician Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule makes a stunning feature directorial debut with “The Burial of Kojo,” a visionary fable drenched with vibrancy and lyricism. Set in Ghana against a literally and figuratively changing landscape, what begins as a fairy tale or childlike fable takes on unexpected heft, as Bazawule’s simple, arrestingly composed frames accumulate into something transcendent and deeply affecting.
Narrated by Esi (played as a young girl by newcomer Cynthia Dankwa), “The Burial of Kojo” tells the story of an idyllic childhood spent with her father — a fisherman named Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), and her more distant mother, Ama (Mamley Djangmah). Living in a small shack within a village entirely surrounded by water, Esi may not be wealthy, but enjoys a life enriched by spending time with her father in his canoe, serenaded by bird song and gently lapping waves. Evoked by Bazawule by way of exquisite images and moments of startling magical realism, Esi’s world is one of enchantment, full of auguries, symbols and stark metaphors.
As often as not, those omens have to do with water, fire and birds, which come into play with increasingly metaphorical power throughout “The Burial of Kojo.” When Esi’s uncle Kwabena (Kobina Amissah-Sam) visits and convinces Kojo to move the family to the “big city,” an existence once in tune with the rhythms of nature turns into an edgier quest for economic survival, one that will introduce Kojo to the cutthroat world of black-market gold mining and the presence of Chinese big business. What’s more, he will be forced to confront a long-standing conflict he’s had with Kwabena, a family feud that is not-so-subtly echoed in the Spanish telenovelas Esi watches on TV with her grandmother.
Bazawule, who is on a mission to create a thriving, self- sustaining film industry in Ghana, infuses “The Burial of Kojo” with color and invention, not hesitating to turn the film upside down, run it in reverse or speed up his edits to create a desired effect. Set to music he wrote himself — drawing on Afropop as well as more classical sounds — his movie fairly bursts with beauty, wonder and light. As grounded in reality as it is informed by outright fantasy, “The Burial of Kojo” is deceptively simple, unfolding in the soothing, singsong manner of a child’s fragmentary dream, but containing within it myriad truths about an Africa where economic exploitation and colonialism have taken on new forms and accents.
Primarily, though, “The Burial of Kojo” tells a touching story of the love between a father and his daughter, an enduring devotion that is expressed in the film’s lovely final scene. Bazawule might portray Kojo as a man burdened by vision and all that it portends. As for the filmmaker himself, it’s nothing but a gift.
Unrated. At AFI Silver; also available via Netflix streaming. Contains some adult themes. In Fante, Twi and English with subtitles. 80 minutes.