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Paa Joe and the Lion: The Documentary About Art, Love, and Coffins

8 June 16 words: Alison Emm

"People in Ghana grieve in such an outward way that's so different to the way we inwardly grieve in the west. Having that comparison is really beautiful"

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Paa Joe is dubbed the Grandfather of Fantasy Coffins – what exactly is a fantasy coffin?
Ben: You can call them fantasy coffins, proverbial caskets or figurative caskets – they represent a person’s life, vocation, or something they may not have been able to achieve in their lifetime. For example, a taxi driver who wanted a Mercedes Benz but could never afford one would be buried in a Benz car. There are the straightforward ones – doctors have syringes, fisherman have fish – but then there are more spiritual ones with a conceptual meaning. My favourite is the sankofa bird – a bird with an egg in its mouth, with its head turned to its back – for a person who had unfinished business before they died. The egg is like the soul, it enables you to return to the land of the living to complete any unfinished business.

There’s the famous story of the grandmother of two carpenters; she’d never flown before so they built a Ghanaian aeroplane and buried her in that. Kane Kwei realised the potential as a business and started making his coffins. Kane Kwei is Paa Joe’s uncle, and he trained him. Paa Joe has exhibited alongside Kane Kwei all over the world, and is the most established and respected living Ghanaian coffin artist at the moment.

How did you first come across Paa Joe’s work?
Ben: He had an exhibition in the Jack Bell Gallery, London, in 2010. I saw Paul Smith blog about it just after my Paul Smith film [PS Your Mystery Sender] had been in festivals. I was interested in it for the same reasons as the Paul Smith art works: they had stamps put all over them and then became art works; they were created through people who weren’t artists in a contemporary art sense. That’s attached to the coffins too, they are functional pieces with a conceptual element, displayed as art.

Jack Bell gave me Paa Joe and Jacob’s number, I phoned them and said “I’d really like to come and visit you.” The intention was to shoot a short film or make a trailer, but I realised there was a much bigger story.

What was the initial story you wanted to tell?
Ben: They had been forced to move premises and Paa Joe was not doing very well, despite exhibiting in the V&A, the British Museum and Southbank. That’s what spurred me on to think about it as a bigger project. It started off as, “He’s been forced to move, he’s fallen on hard times – how are we going to follow him, see him reach his goal and turn his business around?” At that time, Jacob was still quite young and I didn’t realise it was actually a coming-of-age story about Jacob taking the mantle. Jacob’s the “Lion” in the title – he becomes it throughout the film.

Anna: Before Paa Joe and Jacob came to Clumber Park in 2013 to do a month-long residency, we didn’t know what Paa Joe was going to build because he had all these ideas, but he said, “I’m going to do the lion.” So, we decided on Paa Joe & The Lion. I’ve always pitched it that Paa Joe wanted to rescue his legacy because he was frightened that if he were to die tomorrow, everything would be buried underground. We discover in the film, almost at the same time that Paa Joe does, that Jacob is his legacy.

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So the story arc altered while you were making the film?
Ben: For a fictional indie film, you can spend years developing the script, whereas the writing happens in the edit in documentary. You’re shooting, editing and realising the story as you go. During the final year of editing, it would get to the stage where I didn’t know what to do next – I knew the film wasn’t finished or where I needed it to be, but we weren’t sure how to change it. I’d have to give it a bit of a break, and show our executive producer Brian Hill [Century Films] – if we didn’t have that sounding board, it would have been so hard.

In order to sell a documentary, you have to pretend you know what’s going to happen. You invent all this stuff about what it’s going to be, then you make the film and it’s not that. You’ve got all those original themes you’ve been developing that you’ve got to try and filter out. It’s not like every time we went to Brian he’d say, “Your film’s not about that,” and draw a line straight through it. He was exactly the same as us, but he was a step away from it.

Anna: It was difficult to let go of some of the themes because when we started, we wanted everyone to know he’s an artist, not just a coffin maker. Then there was the storyline of him struggling and rescuing his business. These were entrenched in the edit for such a long time, then slowly you realise that you don’t actually need them at all, and you get a beautiful, simple story.

You must be able to make at least four or five feature films out of all the footage you’ve got…
Ben: Definitely. Paa Joe’s mother died in late 2012, which obviously took up a huge part of the film – a son making a coffin for his mother, who put him into that work and gave him an opportunity he excelled in. It’s very powerful, and personal. The human aspect of the plot is something that rises above everything else. I’m really happy that that’s what the film is about: it’s not about art in a conventional, arts-channel way. It’s a proper story.

Anna: It’s about love and death. That’s it, at its core. You’ve got the father and son love that is driving the story, but through their work and personal life they are confronted by death. It opens our eyes up to a different way of experiencing and dealing with death. People in Ghana grieve in such an outward way that’s so different to the way we inwardly grieve in the west. Having that comparison is really beautiful.

It’s a feature film, what’s the running time?
About 71 minutes. I’m really happy about that length – so many feature films are far too long. You build up to the hour point and it drops, then it has to build up over the next half an hour. I wanted to keep the momentum, rather than having a dip. It’s like Miles Davis – he used to cut off his soloists, just interrupt them so the audience were left wanting more.

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Paa Joe & The Lion has been selected for the 2016 Sheffield Doc/Fest. Have you submitted it anywhere else?
Anna: Sheffield’s our launch and then we’ll go from there. We’ve got to get post-production out the way first! Doc/Fest took the film based on the offline rough-cut, so we’re so thrilled and thankful to them for taking the risk with it.
Ben: But now we’re doing the post at the best post-production facilities around because we’ve been able to get that support from Creative England. It’s now going to be a Creative England Feature Film, which is excellent.
Anna: It was a bit chicken and egg. We’d got into Doc/Fest before we’d secured production finance, so it was a bit…
Ben: Hairy.

Benjamin Zephaniah has penned and narrated some original poetry for the film. How did the collaboration come about and what was it like incorporating it into the film?
Ben: I emailed him about it in the early stages. He phoned me straight away and said, “It’s a great story, I love the story.” He told us how he’d already booked his own funeral – he’s got a wicker basket and a plot in Leicester Forest. Life and death is not an unusual subject for an artist to be interested in or to gain inspiration from, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that he was interested. When cuts came through I wrote him extensive briefs with the themes and concepts behind every element, and then he wrote the poetry. It’s a long strip of poetic sequences, divided up and edited into the parts where they fitted, still in chronological order. I went to his house a couple of times and then we brought him to Spool to record it in January. He’s been a great supporter of my work.

How many times did you go out to Ghana to visit Paa Joe? What were your experiences out there like?
Ben: I’ve been there six times now. They have a similar sense of humour [to the British] – really sarcastic, take the piss a lot. The whole film is really funny, certainly for a British audience. We’ll see how it translates internationally, but they’re really amusing, enjoyable people to be around. Religion is vitally important to them as well as superstition.

Is Paa Joe superstitious?
Ben: Very.
Anna: When they go travelling they don’t tell anyone they’re leaving. They ring them when they arrive.
Ben: I’m not sure if that’s just him, though. He thought someone would put a curse on him that would change the photo in his passport to look like someone else so he wouldn’t be able to travel.

Is Jacob less superstitious?
Ben: He’s religious – he wanted to be a preacher.
Anna: He doesn’t talk about the superstitions in the same way. Or we didn’t hear him talk about them in the same way.
Ben: He explained some of the things. Paa Joe believes lizards are a manifestation of evil spirits. After relocating, the new workshop had been unoccupied so there were loads of lizards there. His business went downhill and so he associated them with a bad period in his life. We used that motif in the film – every time they talk about their plans, the lizard is listening.

In the procession at Clumber Park, we got Stephen Jon, a mask maker, to create lizard masks, and the coffin span around to dispel the demons before it was taken to be buried in the forest. That’s all influenced by the Ga beliefs, and Paa Joe’s specific belief about those things. Most people won’t even notice it, but it’s a conceptual layer to the film. Hopefully it will communicate to people, and we’re trying to help bring that out in the sound design.

It’s really exciting because we’ve got John Sampson [Swimming] working on the sound design. I collected Ghanaian instruments every time I visited, so we’ve been playing stuff into the mics to add different layers. We were doing the sequence the other day and John was like, “This is like some seventies cult soundtrack.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s what we want!”

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Have you been involved in every step of the documentary’s process?
Anna: It’s an authored film, so Ben’s voice is throughout. He shot it, edited it, conceptualised it, played instruments on it...
Ben: There’s lots of creative visual sequence stuff, lots of music – it’s not a conventional documentary in that sense. It’s not that unconventional but it’s definitely on the creative side of filmmaking. There’s lots of in-camera manipulations, and we shot the masks in the studio, put projected smoke machines in and reshot it – loads of visual layering that I’ve created alongside Mark Pyper, who has done graphic titles on top of that. We also filmed Paa Joe and Jacob on a green screen before they left. I look at it how I would do an art work, and in that essence you would be doing all the parts, even if you’re working collaboratively. It may have been different if we’d been invested in earlier…
Anna: Yeah, because we’d have more people to answer to.
Ben: And they’d say, “You can’t do all the editing.” Actually, there was a time when I was like, “Someone else come and help me!” So it was through necessity, but I’ve learned so much because of that.

Anna: I remember the first time I went to Ghana – and it sounds a lot more plush than it was – but we stayed in a hotel with a pool. It was our last day and we decided to have a swim. Ben said to me, “When the fuck are we ever going to get any money for this film?” I felt the pressure of being an inexperienced producer, but I said, “Well, at the moment, we have nobody to answer to and for your first film that’s what you want and need.” It’s a freedom. Funding comes with its own constraints.
Ben: Straight after Anna said that, I said, “Right, I’m going to go get the hydro-microphone out and can you go jump in the pool for the splash sound effect that I need.”

Dare I ask, have you got any other film projects in the pipeline?
Ben:I did a six-week exhibition at Somerset House for National Trust, One and All, last year. My work was in every single room in that place and, as an unknown artist, that was a huge thing. Right now, I’m interested in concentrating on the beginning, rather than the end, of life. I do have a project, I don’t want to talk about it too much, but it’s actually quite far through in terms of shooting, so hopefully that will be evident soon. It’s a personal piece so it’ll be similar to Paa Joe and PS Your Mystery Sender with its practices of filmmaking. Maybe in the future it’d be interesting to do something fictional, but I don’t think I’m there yet.

Will Paa Joe & The Lion be getting a Nottingham screening soon?
Anna: We’ve just had a meeting with Broadway about doing a one-off gala screening on Sunday 28 August, we’re really excited to bring the film ‘home’.
Ben: We’ll bring Paa Joe and Jacob over for that, and hopefully the lion [coffin]. We’re also hoping to make it an event with an exhibition of David Severn’s photographs, a procession with drummers and dancers, and Ghanaian food. It’ll be a big festival kind of thing, like when we were at Clumber Park.

Paa Joe & The Lion premiere, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Monday 13 June, 10am, £6.60/£9.35. Get tickets here

Paa Joe & The Lion website

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