Review written by Mike Fishman
We are all of us going to die at some point. If we are lucky and have the foresight, we can determine and dictate how our funerals will be conducted and in what state our bodies laid to rest (or scattered to the winds, placed in an urn, donated to medical science, etc.). For those choosing to be buried, there is the obvious question of the casket. While most people planning to be buried have already picked out or inherited their final resting spot, a far lesser number of individuals flip through the dreaded catalog at their neighborhood undertaker to select the ideal casket, leaving that depressing bit of business to their surviving loved ones. For those with money and resources, some very fine caskets can be selected, indeed even customized based on a personality trait or a particular obsession. In Benjamin Wigley’s extraordinary documentary Paa Joe and The Lion (which screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in 2017) we get to see a number of so-called “fantasy” coffins, created by Paa Joe, a carpenter in Ghana, who has been carving unique caskets for some 40 years, with examples of his handiwork displayed in museums around the world including the British Museum.
When we first meet Paa Joe (Joseph Ashong), he is working on his latest creation, a wooden coffin in the form of a woman’s body, perhaps destined to be a mermaid. A lively montage highlights a handful of his creations, coffins in the forms of chili peppers, cars, fish, even a soda bottle. As Paa Joe amusingly points out, film director Wigley might choose a coffin in the shape of a camera while Paa Joe may ultimately decide on a hammer. For some, fantasy coffins allow for a moment, albeit brief, to be identified with something that defined them in life, before they and the casket are lowered into the ground. For others, the shapes may speak of an ideal: the freedom of a bird, for example.
The director displays a sure hand as he guides viewers through a portrait of this unusual carpenter, giving a good sense of Paa Joe’s surroundings and daily routine of what appears to be dedicated and joyful toil. The film follows Paa Joe as he and son/apprentice Jacob travel to the UK after receiving a commission from the Arts Council in England for a month long residency, where the father and son carpenters set about creating Paa Joe’s final masterwork, a coffin in the shape of a great lion. The work is done in an outdoor shed so that the process can be observed by passersby, a handful of whom reflect on what kind of fantasy coffin they might choose while others hold to the tradition of an unremarkable casket.
Mr. Wigley cuts between Paa Joe in England and back home in Ghana, highlighting a period of time just after his elderly mother dies and he is focused on making her coffin. As Paa Joe explains, his mother was a devout Christian who would have wanted a simple coffin and so he sets about creating a traditional casket, but one clearly carved with great care and attention to detail and with a sumptuous interior lining. Thus Paa Joe sends off his mother in a relatively modest style she would have approved of and made possible by the skills her son learned at her own urging, Paa Joe expressing heartfelt appreciation for his mother having pushed him as a young man to learn a trade. And throughout the film we see Paa Joe wielding that skill, working the wood with his bare hands, practically breathing in the sawdust and exhaling it back out, as if using his very being to give shape to unique creations that will mean so much to people far removed from his own reality. There is irony, of course, in a carpenter from Ghana creating exquisite works of art for wealthy patrons to purchase and be buried in, but the film does not swell on such issues. It offers instead a humorous, entertaining and insightful portrait of the man as artist while leading viewers inevitably to considerations of mortality.
Visit the website to find out about watching the film online at: http://www.paajoeandthelion.co.uk
Photos courtesy of Benjamin Wigley.