As has long been observed, African cinema has received reprehensibly short shrift in non-Francophone countries, which is one reason why The Burial of Kojo - the Ghanaian coming-of-age drama recently elevated to Netflix via the support of Ava duVernay's Array Releasing - presents as a special case. Unusual would be the right word for the film itself. With its wobbly digital camerawork and occasionally hesitant performance style, there are scenes here that wouldn't look entirely out of place on one of those Nollywood movie channels that have sprung up on the furthest reaches of the cable box, yet director Sam Blitz Bazawule is equally capable of plucking an arresting, screenfilling or simply flat-out gorgeous image out of the ether. It's not the most consistent viewing experience anybody will have in 2019, but it does finally transport us somewhere, and demonstrates huge promise along the way. You're left wondering how many African filmmakers over the decades would have benefited from a Netflix-duVernay boost, and whether the recent passing of the great Mauritanian director Med Hondo would have been noted in more Western media outlets had his films been readily available in our editors' front rooms.
In a hazy first-person voiceover, the adult version of our asthmatic young heroine Esi (Cynthia Dankwa) recalls details of her childhood as though it were some dim and distant dream, this despite the fact the images we see appear to be coming to us from the present-day: a troubled, unsettled family unit; a father, the eponymous Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), at odds with his brother after the death of the latter's wife; an illegal mining operation with which both siblings become involved, and which precipitates the formative incident enshrined in the title. A portal is thereby opened up onto everyday Ghanaian life, allowing us a sense of the country's work (there are rival Chinese and Arabic mineowners/exploiters), religion, television scheduling (Esi and her grandmother are hooked on a Brazilian telenovela about warring siblings, suggesting that Bazawule is at least self-aware about the soap he's peddling) and law enforcement. Yet a good percentage of The Burial of Kojo would seem to be taking place on a higher plane, closer to magic realism - Esi finds herself stalked, both in her nightmares and actuality, by a crow-headed figure on horseback - and these sequences serve as notice of the director's intent to live up to his name.
Blitz takes any opportunity to shake up those banal digital images: reversing the footage, shooting upside-down, deploying a drone to substitute for the perspective of a dove. When Kojo falls (or is he pushed?) down a mineshaft, the camera tumbles alongside him. That initial dreaminess proves to be as much a shield as the fog that shrouded Black Panther's Wakanda from the wider world: some way of keeping out the closed-of-mind, yes, but also a generator of signs and signifiers - like that cowboy crow - which require active interpretation. One reason non-African viewers may feel at sea for at least some of the running time is that Bazawule holds to a tradition of storytelling that is very different from the Syd Field-Robert McKee templates the rest of us have been nursed on, one where rational explanation is at all times secondary to vivid illustration, and it's okay to leave elements hanging in the air. You feel the drama snapping into something like focus as Esi realises she may be the only person capable of rescuing her father, and even if Bazawule doesn't come up with much in the way of a grand finale - relying instead on a long credit scroll of grandees (not just duVernay, but Ryan Coogler, Terence Nance and many others) to nudge that running time up to full feature length - in some respects his work has already been completed, setting these often extraordinary visions free to float into homes around the globe.
The Burial of Kojo is now streaming via Netflix.