The Burial of Kojo (2018) film still courtesty of director Blitz Bazawule.

Conjuring Memories

an interview with Blitz Bazawule 
by Jemma Desai

In The Burial of Kojo (2018), a girl remembers her father, evoking him through fable, fantasy, and ancestral knowledge. Blitz the Ambassador’s debut film is similarly the realization of Black radical imagination—a film conjured on the lands of his forebears, by any means necessary in an industry where an indie film from Africa is the last in the queue for funding.

Blitz (born Samuel) Bazawule is a Ghanaian hip hop artist, filmmaker, and visual artist who has been based in Brooklyn since 2001, and for whom self-determination is central to his practice as a creator. A live version of the epic track “Remembering the Future” from his 2010 EP StereoLive illustrates Bazawule’s refusal to capitulate to what our creative industries often force Black artists to accept. Opening with the sound of Malian musician Balla Tounkara’s kora playing and overlaid with his tender opening refrain, Bazawule joins him to sing, “I am who I am / and you can never change me / Reaching for the sun / remembering the future,” before being swept up by his twelve-piece band, the Embassy Ensemble. The song moves into an unapologetic flow, taking swipes at a music industry that cannot imagine what Black art so often defiantly dares to dream.

As his practice moved into filmmaking, in 2015 he joined the Accra-based African Film Society, a collective of West African filmmakers seeking to safeguard Africa’s cinematic history and also nurture the future. The group’s mission is to empower African-financed, African-centered storytelling. Bazawule’s debut feature bears all the hallmarks of this radical intention. Unlike similarly internationally lauded African films such as Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch (2017) and Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (2018), which were financed by European companies, Bazawule chose to use his hard-won success as a musical artist to pursue financing from within Ghana. He has said that The Burial of Kojo is the first local feature film—financed, written, and directed by Ghanaians, with a Ghanaian cast and crew—of its scale to be produced in Ghana, and is certainly the first to gain such international recognition, having been nominated for a Golden Globe and distributed on Netflix by ARRAY.

We spoke midway through the pandemic. Bazawule was in Atlanta, which—a few short weeks before the grief and fire of national and international uprising—he said felt like a refuge from the infection rates in New York. We discussed some of the storyboards for his visionary film.

The Burial of Kojo (2018) film stills and storyboards courtesy of Blitz Bazawule.

“What I remember about Ghana growing up was that it was like worlds within worlds within worlds; nothing was just surface.”


Jemma Desai: These storyboards are incredible. How did working on the storyboards connect you to the world you were trying to create in the film? How do they relate to your wider practice as a filmmaker?

Blitz Bazawule: What I remember about Ghana growing up was that it was like worlds within worlds within worlds; nothing was just surface. Things were handmade; nothing was run through a machine. That’s how I attempted to make The Burial of Kojo—that every moment be its own handcrafted thing.

The storyboards are crafted like this. I can write scenes I’m not going to shoot because it’s easy. I can type away. Because of the nature of making storyboards, you have to ask yourself, Is this scene necessary? Because you’ve got 500 other frames to draw. When you’re short on time and money, a plan is your absolute best bet of creating something that’s artistically astute.

It will be very interesting post-corona how films are made. Films are going to decrease and go back to the age of independent filmmaking because the incredibly artistically astute are going to be the leaders. I was preparing to make incredible work for cheap, understanding that African filmmaking isn’t taken seriously by funders. If you’re going to tell African stories or stories of oppressed people, Indigenous people around the world, you’re probably not first in line for the hundred-million-dollar budget. And so to learn how to make work that can compete with films that have those budgets becomes very important.

JD: Shall we start with the “burning car on beach” storyboard? This is such an iconic image.

BB: This particular moment of a car burning is something I had conjured much earlier. Memory was important in visualizing the film. I never put the camera on a tripod. It was never mathematical. It was always about asking myself: What is the memory I’m accessing here? What is the field? How do I remember this, some of which I’ve lived, some of which is genetic memory? That does play a huge role, whether we know it or not—memories may not be ours but memory that’s passed down through ancestry. Things that my grandmother’s grandmother saw—that is still in me.

For me, elements are important; these natural elements kind of become the wave we ride. Throughout this film, whether it’s fire, whether it’s air, whether it’s water, whether it’s the earth itself—you know, Kojo [Joseph Otsiman] went through all of those elements—a lot of what I was attempting to do is juxtapose these elements. The shot you see right now, the top is out of place because that scene comes much later, when the bird visits him. But the two frames below, this is from a child’s perspective. Perspective-wise, the camera was always going to be at an angle, like conjuring or piecing together a lot of dirty frames. And that was because, from a child’s perspective, everything’s cloudy. Even if they can see clearly, their mind is not mature enough to put it all together. That’s the magic of childhood. So this moment was this child telling us about a dream the father had, which turns out to not be a dream but more of a torment.

“That does play a huge role, whether we know it or not—memories may not be ours but memory that’s passed down through ancestry. Things that my grandmother’s grandmother saw—that is still in me.”

I also knew that I needed an iconic moment that will translate into posters, other marketing. I studied marketing in college and always advise any creative to take a marketing class if you can. You’re not just making art; you’re simultaneously communicating art. This was a moment that I knew cinematically would speak directly to a film that was about a torment, a burning rage, a burning sensation.

I was very specific on the kind of car I wanted. The VW Beetle, which also flooded the markets in Ghana in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, is memorable as an image but also ubiquitous all over Ghana. I knew that it had a sentimental element, at least locally, because everybody had ridden one at some point in their lives.

The smoking scene is straight out of my childhood memories—uncles sending me to go buy cigarettes. We call it jot in Ghana. My uncles would just stand on the porch after a conversation with my parents, the time where I saw my uncles and sometimes aunties ponder to themselves—a moment of ultimate alone. I knew this would be a powerful moment in the movie. This is the first time we are curious about Kwabena [Kobina Amissah-Sam], the uncle, because of the moment of solitude, an opportunity to really see him. Something important happens in this scene when so much of the symbolism of the film also matters. This moment Kwabena is standing there smoking and very slowly and suddenly has a band on his arm that starts to soak with blood. We did this scene knowing it was going to foreshadow things that were going to happen.

This is a really good example of how a storyboard can help you shoot a powerful scene when you are tight on time and budget. The minute my actor saw this, he knew—even the body language. When you look at the final frame of the film, he has almost exactly the body language, how he smokes—it’s very nonchalant, but specifically what I wanted. And so I kind of shaped the performance in the storyboard, so my actor is going in and has a starting point.

This meal scene is one of the early moments of film. The uncle shows up, and they have a meal together. One thing that was critical was to establish the kind of cinematic choice that was going to dictate a lot of the film, which is extremely immersive. Back home, we eat together, a big pot of food served, and then we all dig in. It’s culturally very different from any Western style of sharing a meal—this idea of an individual plate versus a bowl in which we all have to be conscious of each other. So a lot of how the camera moved within this film was very immersive, not voyeuristic. This voyeuristic approach to cinema is the style we’ve grown up, where the camera is not within; it doesn’t feel like you’re amongst the people you know. If you travel in the Western world, that’s how people live. They live in silos, fenced yards. And not to say this hasn’t been adopted by non-Western countries and people, but in terms of what’s indigenous to us, it is communal living. So this moment of sharing was a visual representation of that specific cultural element. The camera sits, and the hands dig in. The audience gets sucked into that meal; it was a way to pull people in. The shot was framed specifically to allow that space where the audience was going to dig in with everybody else.

JD: Can you share one final storyboard with us?

BB: A lot of this film is about the unequal relationship between native Ghanaians and foreign immigrants that work in the country. It’s very unique, because if you travel the world, you know, if you’re an immigrant, your status is almost always beneath the Indigenous folk that are born there. What’s peculiar about Africa is the opposite—immigrants almost always have more power than the local population. For example, Chinese immigrants in Ghana, or as in this scene, Middle Eastern immigrants in Ghana—it’s not necessarily the people that are the problem. It’s institutional, coming from the state, and how those institutional inequalities form between people.

So, our guy here found this gold, and the hope is that they can sell it for a fair enough price they can split amongst each other. I knew I wanted to shoot this deal underhanded, so my DP and I talked about how the camera had to leave the story in a symbolic sense. If I put the camera below, of course, I gave him more power because of that angle. You’ve also got to see this piece of gold obscure him. It also allows you to see the power imbalance between him and these other people. Throughout this conversation, [the gold dealer] doesn’t even look them in the eye. He’s on the phone. I wanted to give him complete distraction, which again reinforces the idea of inequality. And, again, being very specific about how the camera moved under that glass table, how he pulls out a fat wad of cash—all of it feels very underhanded and very disrespectful.

Watch Jemma Desai discuss this interview with Erin Christovale via IGTV