Fantasy Collides With African Culture In Blitz The Ambassador's 'Burial Of Kojo'

Mar 31, 2019
Originally published on March 31, 2019 3:03 pm

On his 2014 album, Afropolitan Dreams, hip-hop artist Samuel Bazawule, also known as "Blitz the Ambassador," vividly describes his journey from wide-eyed immigrant to multinational success story. In one song he declares: "I think I'm relocating back to Ghana for good."

And, he did.

Taking leave from his home in Brooklyn and returning to the country of his birth was a fateful decision that Bazawule credits as the inspiration for his first feature film, The Burial of Kojo. The modern fable of a young girl navigating the spirit realm to find her father after his mysterious disappearance, the film takes place entirely in Ghana, using a cast and crew made up almost entirely of locals.

The Burial of Kojo caught the eye of producer and director Ava DuVernay , who acquired it earlier this year for distribution by her production company, ARRAY. On Sunday, the film makes its premieres on Netflix — the first original film from Ghana to be released on the streaming platform.

Bazawule spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about the project.


Interview Highlights

On making the transition from music to film.

I had made music for six years by the time I made Afropolitan Dreams, and I was slowly getting to the point where I realized that trying to communicate this Africanness through music just wasn't doing it. So I knew that I had to expand the palette. I've been a visual artist since I was a kid — I've made music, and I felt cinema was the logical next step. It allows us to combine all these things that we know, visual and sonic, and it puts people in the shoes of characters, so it makes sense as a medium.

On the theme of mining in Africa in The Burial Of Kojo

You can't tell a story currently about Africa without shedding some light on the environment and how that's become exploited, whether it's through mining, lumbering or wherever the natural resource grab is. It's also seeing China make a play on the continent, and some really strong European corporations still running things. So for me, it was very important that that was present. But I never once wanted to make a story that centered [on] that.

On the film's depictions of family relationships

The film is about two brothers who have a jagged past, and one brother goes missing. We kind of suspect his brother is responsible for it, but his daughter then has to go on this magical journey to find him when nobody else can — the police can't, and his wife can't.

The pivotal scene [between father and daughter Kojo and Esi] is in Fante, which is a dialect of Twi. [Esi] says, "You know if you leave me, I will turn into the wind, disappear into thin air and find you." And the father responds, "You don't have to turn into air or go anywhere. I'll never leave you."

That was one of those moments I feel we haven't seen much of in cinema in general — father-daughter relationships — but definitely in African cinema where it is tender, it's heartfelt. Making this film I was very focused on nuclear relationships. I was focused on family and family relationships, family drama, family dynamics, loss, betrayal, love. Things that, again, aren't often seen in African cinema.

On filming with an all-Ghanaian cast and crew

Story is all about autonomy — who gets to control the story and who gets to tell the story. I felt that many African films haven't had the kind of autonomy that they should have. And you can tell by the choices that are made cinematically when it's clear somebody was in the room that just didn't really understand.
So going into this film, autonomy was the first thing. If we're going to make a film, then we should be adding to the canon of filmmaking, but specifically to the canon of African filmmaking. That required us to kind of put our heads together with other Africans to say, "What do you know? What do you remember?" And those memories are how I'm going to form the foundation of this film.

For me, my storytelling genesis begins with my grandmother's stories. You know, late-night nocturnal sitting around listening to fairy tales and folk tales and magical tales and stuff that only your mind could imagine. For me, making this film was central that I continued in that tradition.

On the film's vibrant color palette

It was about mirroring what I know. Africa is so rich visually, from fabrics in the marketplace to what the clay looks like, to what the earth looks like. It's so vivid.

And it's always struck me as odd when I watch movies from the continent that are often desaturated and almost sepia-toned. I'm always baffled because it's clear that whoever's coloring this has probably never been to the content, or definitely hasn't walked through the marketplace, because when you do, you realize that color comes at you.

On wanting a diverse, multinational audience for The Burial of Kojo

For me, it's the reason I've been making art from the beginning. I don't think it's right that a continent with over 1.2 billion people has such little visual representation, specifically in cinema.

If you ask the average person how many African films they've seen, it'll baffle you. The numbers are in the single digits. If you ask any African how many American films they've seen, that's their entire life.

So if we understand that cinema is a means of building empathy and for you to walk in shoes of people you've never met and to understand their circumstance, then you understand how important it is that our films don't just play locally, but they play globally. Because within that global discourse, that's how we form our ideas of each other. And if the films that are made from the continent aren't made by Africans or controlled by Africans, then the narrative is always one that doesn't really exemplify Africa.

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KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:

And finally today, we have a conversation about a new film called "The Burial Of Kojo." The movie was directed by Samuel Bazawule, better known as Blitz the Ambassador. It's a visually stunning tale that takes place entirely in his native Ghana. Our own Michel Martin spoke with him about the film, and they began by discussing his decision to make a movie after working for years as a musician.

SAMUEL BAZAWULE: I had made music for six years. And I was slowly getting to the point where I realized that trying to communicate this Africanness that I know about through music wasn't doing it. And so I knew that I had to expand the palette. And, you know, I've been a visual artist since I was a kid. I've made music. And I felt cinema was the logical next step. It allows us to combine all these things that we know, visual and sonic. And it also puts people in the shoes of characters. So it makes sense as a medium to communicate this Africanness.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So tell us about the film. Tell us about the - and I want to dig into some of the themes in a minute. Without giving too much away, tell us a little bit about the story.

BAZAWULE: Yes. The film is about two brothers who have a jagged past. One brother goes missing. We kind of suspect the brother is responsible for it, but his daughter then has to go on this magical journey to find him when nobody else can.

MARTIN: I'm going to play a clip now. It's between father and daughter, Kojo and Esi. What is the language that it's in?

BAZAWULE: The scene is in Fante, yes, which is a dialect of Twi.

MARTIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BURIAL OF KOJO")

CYNTHIA DANKWA: (As Esi, speaking Fante).

JOSEPH OTSIMAN: (As Kojo, speaking Fante).

DANKWA: (As Esi, speaking Fante).

MARTIN: It's such a lovely, gentle scene. First, translate.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell us what's going on here.

BAZAWULE: What she says, you know, if you leave me, I will turn into the wind, disappear into thin air and find you. And the father responds, you don't have to turn into air go anywhere. I'll never leave you. And, I mean, that was one of those moments that I feel we haven't seen much of in cinema in general, father-daughter relationships, but definitely in African cinema, where it's tender, it's heartfelt. And also, the little girl has a knowing, which was very specific to this film as well, trying to entrust as much of the power of this film in this little black girl who had clarity over her years.

MARTIN: There's so much to dig into, and we don't have time to discuss all of it. But you're right, that scene is so lovely and gentle. And it almost brings tears to your eyes. And I was wondering why it was so important to you to have this relationship be so crucial to the film.

BAZAWULE: You know, making this film, I was very focused on nuclear relationships. I was focused on family drama, family dynamics - loss, betrayal, love - things that, again, aren't often seen in African cinema, if seen at all.

MARTIN: And it also does have issues. I mean, there is a big issue in the background, if I can put it that way, which is the mining industry and the effect that it has on people and place.

BAZAWULE: You can't tell a story currently about Africa without shedding some light on the environment, you know, and how that's become exploited, whether it's through the mining, lumbering, wherever the natural resource grab is, you know. And it's also kind of seeing China make a play on the continent, and still some really strong European corporations still running things. So for me, it was very important that that was present. But I never once wanted to make a story that centered that.

MARTIN: I don't want the mechanics of the filmmaking to overwhelm the film itself...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...But I do want to point out it was very important to you that the film be staffed and cast with people from Ghana.

BAZAWULE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And that was really important to you, and why is that?

BAZAWULE: It was. It was. And it was because story is all about autonomy. You know, who gets to control the story, who gets to tell the story? And I felt that many African films haven't had the kind of autonomy that they should have. So going into this film, autonomy was the first thing. If we're going to make a film, then we should be adding to the canon of filmmaking but specifically to the canon of African filmmaking. And that required us to kind of put our heads together with other Africans to say, what do you know? What do you remember? And those memories are kind of what are going to form the foundation of this film.

MARTIN: The people who've written about the film, the people who've seen it so far have all noted just how lovely it is. It's so beautifully shot. I mean, just every frame is like a painting. I just wanted to ask if the visual palette or the color framework was something that was very important to you.

BAZAWULE: It was very important. And Africa is so rich visually. Color wise, I mean, from fabrics in the marketplace to what the clay looks like, what the earth looks like. It's so vivid. And it's always struck me as odd when I watch movies from the continent that are often de-saturated and almost sepia-tone looking. And I'm always baffled because it's clear that whoever's coloring this has probably never been to the continent or definitely hasn't walked through the marketplace because when you do, you realize that color comes at you.

MARTIN: But you want a multinational audience. You want this film to live beyond Ghana - to be honest, to be fair, right?

BAZAWULE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And for me, the reason is - it's kind of why I've been making art from the beginning. It's that I don't think it's right that a continent with over 1.2 billion people have such little visual representation, specifically in cinema. If you ask the average person how many African films they've seen, it'll baffle you. The numbers are in the single digits. If you ask any African how many American films they've seen, that's their entire life.

And so if we understand that cinema is a means of building empathy, and for you to walk in shoes of people you've never met, and to understand their circumstance, then you understand how important it is that our films don't just play locally but they play globally because within that global discourse, that's how we form our ideas of each other. And if the films that are made from the continent aren't made by Africans, then the narrative is always one that doesn't really exemplify.

COLEMAN: That was Samuel Bazawule with Michel Martin. The "Burial Of Kojo" is out now on Netflix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.