Poetry transcends reality in Ghanaian fantasy coffin doc ‘Paa Joe & the Lion.’
When English filmmaker and artist Ben Wigley set out to make a film about Paa Joe, he wanted it to be an intersection of documentary storytelling and poetry—fitting for someone who designs symbolic fantasy coffins for a living. What's a fantasy coffin? If you're a carpenter, have your coffin be a hammer. A filmmaker? Well, maybe this Nikon coffin. By combining experimental vérité filmmaking with abstract poetic sequences, Wigley ruminates on the role of art in feature documentary Paa Joe & the Lion.
Wigley sat down with No Film School after the SXSW premiere in the Visions section to talk about shooting in Ghana by yourself, makeshift duct-taped camera gear, and how most of the art we make revolves around life and death.
NFS: How would you describe the kind of documentary that you wanted to make in Paa Joe and The Lion?
Wigley: You're always thinking about your approach to your work as an artist and filmmaker. I think about what photographers and filmmakers have said that stay with me in terms of using your work as a conduit to ideas and dreams. Stan Brakhage used the word hypnagogic. David Lynch uses phantasmagoria. These are what I try to illustrate and use when telling this story. I was also aware that I wanted it to be a punchy narrative. So it's marrying those two spaces of experimental film and story documentary.
NFS: In the film, there’s mention that art is marrying the two worlds of life and death.
Wigley: That's right. This is what the work is really about for me, the idea of life and death. It’s something that has been a beacon or concept that has run throughout all of my work. But that's not unusual really, I find. I think about 75% of art is doing life and death of things.
NFS: People sure seem to be obsessed with death. I can’t for the life of me think of why!
Wigley: Well it's existence isn't it? It's the reason for being. Like many artists and filmmakers, you have multiple things that are in your mind that are leading as roots for building what film you're going to make.'
"Stan Brakhage used the word hypnagogic. David Lynch uses phantasmagoria."
NFS: What it was like to shoot in Ghana? Did you have any ideas about what you needed to capture, or rules on how to shoot it?
Wigley: I traveled to Ghana six times, and at least three of those times I was on my own. I shot and did all the sound on my own. Sometimes it was quite tricky, the hack of getting a good picture and good sound together! Then in quite fervent situations, where people are running around, and there's dangerous things poking that will knock your head off, or dropping things into a grave, it can be quite dangerous.
"Sometimes it was quite tricky, the hack of getting a good picture and good sound together!"
Wigley: In terms of getting candid and intimate responses, I think that if you arrive somewhere, and it's a vulnerable thing, people will help you. Say you arrive on the doorstep of your subject at four o'clock in the morning from the airport carrying 10,000 pounds of equipment. Sometimes just showing up creates a strong bond. I would always have my camera. You try to have a low footprint, but still try to get in the near ground to talk to them. Some of the film is a bit sketchy—I mean sketchy in the pencil sense. I'm not interested in creating this perfect balance for the steadiest shot. I don't mind it feeling like it's handmade, feeling the hand of the filmmaker.
"Say you arrive on the doorstep of your subject at four o'clock in the morning from the airport carrying 10,000 pounds of equipment."
NFS: Did you use a specific tools that would lend to the marriage of the story and poetry you wanted to capture?
Wigley: I had different cameras at different stages because production lasted a long time. I always tried to play with whatever camera I had. I had the Sony PMW-EX3 with Canon lenses, but the adapter for Canon lenses was a different chip size. It meant that the zoom was like 100 times more or something! But in some cases, it worked out, like a telephoto shot of a lizard I would've never got otherwise.
We got things by experimenting. The spinning kind of visuals in the film come from a GoPro duct-taped to a generator. Or I found a bit of foam in Paa Joe’s studio and then I wrapped it around the lens and held it to the camera and moved it around to find light. I tried to examine what you might see close up, running up Paa Joe’s hand or really close on his lip, mimicking his kind of examination, how he examines the wood himself when carving.
My mom's an artist, and she used to say that life drawing is so important because it teaches you how to look at the world. That's how I film.
"I don't mind it feeling like it's handmade, feeling the hand of the filmmaker."
NFS: Did you take this approach when making the abstract, poetic sequences that punctuate the film?
The filmmaking is about figuring out those building blocks of meaning. I knew that I wanted to illustrate, for instance, when Paa Joe’s mother turns to dust. I knew that I wanted to send her off that way, to have poetry. The poetry is replacing the need for a card that comes up, or a narration that says, "And now...". I knew that I needed them at various points to move the story forward. Poetry is extremely concise in delivering a lot of layers and ideas.
The fantastic visual layers come from putting composites together in After Effects, and Mark Pyper was a great help. We shot moments at the residence with Paa Joe on green screen, in the UK. I didn't know exactly what we were doing, just that “We’ve got to shoot him in the UK on the green screen doing some various things!” Sometimes you just see layers as you go along. I noticed, driving in Ghana, that while they were planting potatoes, all the fields were harrowed into the lines. They looked like the lines from the lion's mane, the lion coffin that Paa Joe was carving. Most people won't notice the grooves of the mane turn into the harrow of the field outright, but that's the narrative of the sequence.
"Poetry is extremely concise in delivering a lot of layers and ideas."
NFS: What was the biggest challenge throughout the whole project?
Wigley: It’s not that unusual for documentary filmmakers to spend five or six years on one feature length film. Being isolated was quite tricky sometimes. I would like to work in bigger teams going forward, but having this project was a great learning experience. It would never have come out like it did if I allowed other people to have control of it. Luckily Anna Griffin, the producer, was totally supportive the whole time. She never dissuaded me in terms of if it was too strange or anything like that. She would just think about story. It was a learning experience I would recommend, knowing that you can do it yourself if you don't have that support.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.