As is the case for most countries on the African continent, Ghanaian film history isn’t anywhere near as rich as the West. After it achieved independence from the British in 1957, Ghana boasted the most impressive infrastructure for film production in Africa, but eventually squandered that potential. After Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first democratically-elected post-independence president, was overthrown in a violent coup d’état in 1966, the new military regime failed to continue his nationalistic policies towards cinema, and instead reverted to pre-independence practices by depending on Europeans (over local filmmakers) to tell Ghanaian stories.
Now, one New Yorker with big dreams hopes to reclaim the promise of industry independence that Nkrumah envisioned decades ago.
Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule (known by his stage name, Blitz the Ambassador), a Brooklyn-based Ghanaian musician and filmmaker, wants to make up for lost time — starting with the production and distribution of his feature directorial debut, “The Burial of Kojo,” an ambitious visual stunner set in Ghana that tackles a timely and controversial subject matter: present-day Sino-African relations. Bazawule raised the budget for the movie on his own, marking the rare occasion in which an African film of this scale has been made without outside funding and received international attention.
Bazawule is one of a few black African filmmakers today afforded the opportunity to produce feature films for international audiences. Telling the story of the tumultuous relationship between two brothers, “Kojo” continues a tradition of magical realist narrative fiction of African cinema godfathers like Djibril Diop Mambety.
The project is a natural continuation of the filmmaker’s musical work. Bazawule’s fourth studio album, “Diasporadical” (2015), was accompanied by a series of short films titled “Diasporadical Trilogia,” a politically-charged triptych on the rhythm and spirituality across a fragmented international African diaspora. He brings a similar flair to “Burial of Kojo,” which unfolds as a story of illegal gold mining in Ghana, controlled by Chinese mining companies.
“We’re touching on subject matter that has international implications, shedding light on what I feel is neo-colonialism by China,” Bazawule said. “It’s happening right now. Just last month, several African heads of state went to China for a summit, because that’s where much of the investment money entering the continent is coming from these days. But we really don’t know what the long-term implications of this are.”
Boasting a production team that includes associate producer Terence Nance (“Random Acts of Flyness”) and actor Jesse Williams (“Grey’s Anatomy”) as an executive producer, “Kojo” was inspired by a newspaper article that the filmmaker read while visiting family in Ghana three years ago.
“The text was bold and direct: ‘Galamsey Miners Buried Alive,'” said Bazawule. (“Galamsey” is a local term for illegal gold mining, an extremely dangerous practice with little financial reward and irreversible environmental consequences.) “I became obsessed with understanding why young men and women risked their lives 30 feet underground, only to be paid a fraction of what the gold was worth.”
After researching the story at the mining towns, he discovered who was behind this local illegal gold mining industry.
“Chinese companies assisted by local chiefs really run the show, operating in the shadows, while young local miners suffer all the risks and backlash,” Bazawule said. “I knew immediately this was a story worth telling. However, I didn’t want to focus on the victimization.” Instead, he focused on “a Ghanaian family dealing with love and tragedy,” he said. “So, instead of centering the issues, I centered the people, something that is rarely seen when Hollywood makes a film in Africa.”
“Kojo” was made under very different conditions than most African films today. European film companies continue to be the dominant financiers of top-shelf African cinema, and effectively control which stories are told. African filmmakers — especially those with aspirations beyond the continent — are rarely able to find funding in their own countries (typically without a local film industry, no official film mandate, and lacking infrastructure), and so they look to Europe for investors. Recent high profile films by African filmmakers telling stories about Africans, like Rungano Nyoni’s “I Am Not a Witch” and Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki,” were financed by European companies.
Bazawule, however, financed the production of “Kojo” himself, leveraging his success as an international musician. To complete post-production, he raised another $75,000 via a crowdfunding campaign. The filmmaker has asserted that “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 there’s no evidence to dispute that claim.
“We were burning cars, digging mine shafts and other kinds of intense things that only get done when Hollywood films are shot there,” Bazawule said, citing two other films of a similar scope that were made in Ghana: HBO’s “Deadly Voyage” (1996) and Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation” (2015). “We’re talking about 20 years apart,” said Bazawule. “And both were fully foreign productions. They came, set up shop, shot, and left. This is typical. In some cases, they don’t even employ local crew.”
Bazawule stresses the importance of films like “Kojo” being financed primarily by Ghanaians, and other people of African descent. He said he was focused on building an infrastructure for Ghanaian filmmakers, training local artisans, and creating a self-sustaining environment for cinema in Ghana that will lead to what he calls a rebirth of a long-dormant film culture in the country.
This has been a key goal for Bazawule for several years. In 2015, he joined a network of intrepid filmmakers from around the continent in launching the Accra-based African Film Society, an organization that will work to preserve and promote Africa’s cinematic history, while cultivating new filmmakers and nurturing an audience for their work. The group’s mission is to empower Africans so that they can tell their own stories through filmmaking, creating distinctly African work to amplify African voices around the world.
“We came together because we all see the same problems African cinema faces today, and we work together to figure out ways to solve them,” Bazawule said. “As a filmmaker, a Ghanaian and an African, self-reliance is important to me. You’re a lot freer.”
While he envisioned “Kojo” as a magical realist fable, he acknowledged the limitations for such a production on a low budget. “We don’t have the equivalent of a Tim Burton, or a Guillermo del Toro, even though, ironically, African stories are naturally more magical realist than anywhere else in the world,” he said. “So I was very focused on making sure that the film had a voice and identity that was defiantly ours, which I don’t think I could’ve done with foreign influence.”
“The Burial of Kojo” will open the London’s annual BFI Film Africa series, celebrating the best in contemporary African cinema, on November 2.