Folk tales have always existed to give shape and meaning to the formless randomness of ordinary life, and to account for why certain occurrences — the death of a parent, the rejection of a lover, the rivalry between brothers — can have an impact on our psyches disproportionate to their un-mythic scale. This is a function of storytelling brought to gloriously vivid, lyrical life in Ghana-born, Brooklyn-based Blitz Bazuwale’s intimate yet resplendent debut “The Burial of Kojo,” in which a young woman recalls her childhood and the father she adored, though her memories are increasingly jumbled up with fantasies until it’s impossible to tell which is which.
Bursting onto the screen in striking image after striking image, the film is a collection of fragments about Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) the sad-eyed, shiftless but charming father of little Esi (Cynthia Dankwa, in a lovely, solemn performance for one so young). We meet him in his recurring dream-that-might-not-be-a-dream, narrated in melodic, accented English by Esi as an adult (Ama K. Ababrese). Kojo stares out at the breaking waves of the seashore where an incongruous bright turquoise Volkswagen bursts into orange flames and belches black smoke into an empty sky.
Initially, Kojo, Esi and her discontented, often absent seamstress mother (Mamley Djangmah) live in a tiny village partly built on stilts and wooden platforms over a glassy, perfectly reflective lake. Kojo spends many an idle moment boating across its tranquil expanses with Esi, telling her “stories where the beginning does not make sense until the end, and the ending is never what you expected.” Crows caw in the background and the ticking of clocks repeats as a sonic motif in the score: There are foreboding portents all around but none strikes quite such an ominous note as the careless promise Kojo makes to Esi to never leave her, ever.
The situation is shaken up with the reappearance of Kojo’s brother Kwabena (Kobina Amissah-Sam), bringing get-rich-quick schemes and dark energies into the uncomprehending Esi’s life. She responds by mentally mapping him and her father onto the narratives she sees around her: the story, told by a blind stranger, of the upside-down world (like the reflected world of the lake) presided over by the sinister Crow, who covets a sacred white bird that Esi must protect; and the plotlines of the tacky telenovela that she watches with her mother and grandmother. As whimsical as all this is, Bazuwale’s magic realism is not merely a device to prettify the prosaic: When the film’s most shocking moment of violence occurs, the magic turns black and the story takes on some of the psychological resonances of horror.
Michael Fernandez’ superlative cinematography yields many pictorialist tableaux: Esi and Kojo lazing on a wooden jetty over the mirrored lake surface as though they’re hovering in space; Kojo and Kwabena smoking outdoors at night, washed to monochrome in purplish light; a neighbor reading the newspaper against a blue wall pocked with electrical outlets; Esi in a nightmare, fleeing from the Crow under an oppressive, dusky pink sky. But the imagery, even when not flipped upside-down, run backward or in slow-motion, is anything but static. The shots feel happened upon rather than assembled, briefly lingered on by a dissatisfied, restive, unusually artful handheld camera. The frame is often angled low and looking up, perhaps from a child’s perspective, scanning the faces of passersby and principals alike with a child’s frank, unabashed curiosity.
The film’s 80 minutes cover a deceptive amount of ground, offering evocative snapshots not only of Kojo’s tragic backstory of unrequited love and brotherly rivalry, but of the region’s institutional corruption, of the hardscrabble lives of rural Ghanaians trying to make ends meet, and of the mutual suspicion between the locals and the migrant Chinese laborers shipped in to work on nearby developments. And though the effect is loose and shifts like sand underfoot, the movie is bound together by Kwaku Obeng Boateng’s rhythmic yet freeform editing and by a tremendously varied score, provided by Bazuwale himself (he’s also a musician). The score incorporates sound effects and African instrumentation alongside more classical elements, contributing to the film’s restless, searching vibe as lost notes and partial harmonies seem to nose through the vibrant images as though hunting for their resolve.
Though the film deals in tragedy, its sheer cinematic exuberance is immensely hopeful. As too, is the story of how one of the most exciting directorial debuts in recent memory was picked up by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing and planted in a few theaters before blossoming on Netflix. As a gorgeous, heady experience and as a debate-ending testament to the value of that platform for smaller films that would otherwise struggle to find their niche, “The Burial of Kojo” deserves to see the light.