In conversation with Blitz Bazawule about his debut feature, which opens Film Africa 2018

Blitz Bazawule has trail-blazed African hip hop for a decade. And now he’s doing the same for African cinema. The Ghana born and raised, New York based artist needs little introduction as Blitz the Ambassador thanks to his four game changing studio albums, but in recent years his short films have also garnered attention. With his first full length feature, The Burial of Kojo, he goes back home to make a moving and magical tale that intertwines one family’s fateful tragedy with the country’s social, political and environmental struggles involving illegal gold mining, all the while sprinkling the narrative and cinematography with a tantalising glimpse of the spirit world. Following premieres at the Urban World Film Festival in New York and Mostra International Film Festival in São Paulo, he’s now heading to London where The Burial of Kojo will be the Opening Gala for Film Africa. As media partner for the festival, Nataal talks with Bazawule about his heartfelt vision for this film

How did your filmmaking journey begin?
It has been a long time coming. I started out drawing and painting, and I’ve had the privilege of making music for 10 years. Now it time to take my storytelling into a new realm that combines these visual and sonic elements. Cinema allows you to convey strong ideas and I’ve arrived at a place in my life that the message is important.

What was your starting point for The Burial of Kojo?
I had these ideas for three scripts that were very loosely connected and at some point they spoke to each other. The film is about two brothers who have a jagged past. We find them through the eyes of a daughter who is recounting what happens. The younger brother goes missing, we expect the older brother is responsible but the girl is the only one who has clarity and has the power to safe him. I’ve used magical realism in that as much is happening in the unseen world as in the very real world.

It’s refreshing that this young female is the lead character.
Yes that is central to the storytelling, and central to the times we’re living in. Women are leading all conversations, yet so little of it exists on film. It was important that we see this girl grow up to have this amazing mind - I couldn’t have told the story in any other way.

You wrote, directed, produced and scored the film, as well as crowd funded the project independently. This is a true labour of love.
It is critical that Africans claim this medium, within which we have not had the same latitude or freedom compared to music and literature. We’ve expanded in those realms in a very particular way that communicates our African-ness but filmmaking is an expensive process, which means most times you have to conform and you have to play safe. I chose to wear so many hats and take the difficult, long road in order to assume the autonomy to communicate an authentic African story. For example, so many films shot in Africa are sepia toned, but African metropolises aren’t sepia toned. We’re either muting ourselves, or handing our work over to DPs who aren’t African and have warped interpretations. I’m not knocking other artists, I just wanted this film to have a specific ethos based on who we are.

How did this goal inform your approach to casting and production?
We found amazing talent, many of whom hadn’t been in films before, and 99 per cent of the cast and crew were Ghanaian. For six months we lived these roles. I constantly said, ‘We’re not acting, we’re living’. We went to the regions where the gold miners are and shadowed them. We had philosophical conversations about life and the after life. And I’d give them music to listen to, like Fela Kuti. One of his songs can last 15 minutes and sounds free – that’s how this film should feel. A lot of the film was communicated through other mediums that spoke to a canon of ideas about how Africans express themselves.

What do you hope viewers learn or feel about Ghana from the film?
I hope that they see it for what it is, a particular viewpoint – it is not all-encompassing but does expose them to one side of Ghanaian culture. I started with a human story and the complexities of family relationships, and then used the circumstances of gender bias, and the issues of gold mining as the backdrop. I did not want to lead with these problems because that would victimise the characters. I want the viewer to fall in love with them, not their trials and tribulations.

What are your plans for the film now?
The goal is to get it seen on as many continents as possible and to build a buzz around it with audiences with whom it will have synergy, which is why Film Africa makes sense. After the UK it’s France, Ghana, South Africa and Japan. We’ll build distribution from there and are taking an organic approach. I’m excited for the Ghana screening. Finally we get to go home with it and because most of it is filmed in the Akan language, which was both stylistically and culturally important, everyone can understand what is being said. The Burial of Kojo is a template that will open doors for other filmmakers who want to make serious film locally that can still resonate globally.

Finally, when can we expect new music from Blitz the Ambassador?
It was good for me to have a break from music. I pioneered an African soundscape and I’m approaching filmmaking with the same ethos. Hip hop culture is sample culture, which echoes the way I worked with the scripts, and in the editing room. It was unconscious and it’s what makes the film different. So for now I’m letting film do my talking, but I am looking forward to getting back in the studio.

The Burial of Kojo screens on 2 November at BFI Southbank and 3 November at South London Gallery. Film Africa runs from 2-11 November in venues across London

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Published on 24/10/2018