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'The Burial of Kojo' is a Nuanced Tale That's Particular to Ghana, but Still Universal

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A young girl in Ghana must plumb her considerable magical-spiritual resources to track down her missing father in The Burial of Kojo, a vibrant debut from writer-director Samuel Basawule, the hip-hop and visual artist also known by his stage name Blitz the Ambassador. The film opened in select U.S. theaters in March, is now available streaming on Netflix and screens on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque in its official local premiere.

Cleveland cinephiles may appreciate that Basawule, a native of Ghana, came to the United States in 2001 to study at Kent State University. He now lives in Brooklyn.

The film is often arresting in its beauty. It has the same place-based mythological character as Benh Zeitlin's 2012 debut Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like in Zeitlin's work, the land itself is possessed of mystical qualities, an almost human intuition and sentience. Both the island village and the "big city" of Accra, where the action largely transpires, are portrayed in loving detail.

The young girl at Kojo's center is Esi (Cynthia Dankwa). Early on, her uncle Kwabena (Kobina Assimah-Sam) arrives by canoe to her family's village and tells them to return to Accra because their mother is ill. There is tension between Esi's father, Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), and Kwabena because of a hazily outlined accident some years ago. Through impressionistic flashbacks and voice-over narration, we learn that Kojo and Kwabena loved the same woman. We learn that there was violence. We see hints of a wedding-night disaster. Images of a burning car at the water's edge haunt Kojo's dreams.

Once in Accra, Kwabena convinces Kojo to go on a few illegal mining trips, hunting for gold on territory controlled by Chinese corporations. In one fateful outing, Kojo falls into a deep pit. From Accra, Esi attempts to track down her father as the mystery of his past and his relationship with Kwabena is further unraveled.

The story itself is slim on both action and dialogue — it clocks in at only 82 minutes. But the emotional core of the story is conveyed chiefly through images, with shots as marvelously composed and scenes as inventively staged as those of director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall). Basawule and cinematographer Michael Fernandez use their surroundings to their advantage, filming through windows and gaps to capture interactions from an array of angles and distances. In its rich and sometimes otherworldly symbolism, Kojo is even reminiscent of director Alejandro Jodorowsky's work, though much less trippy. Ultimately, Basawule has created a nuanced story about grief and guilt that's particular to Ghana but resonant in a universal way.

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