Paa Joe and the Lion – East End Film Festival Review

The connotations of a coffin in Western culture are negative ones.

A place to lay the dead and something associated with tragedy and loss. In many Eastern and older cultures coffins, and indeed death, are handled and viewed differently. Although someone’s passing is still tragic, their death is treated as a step in a new journey. A funeral is more of a festival to celebrate a life, opposed to a ceremony to mourn the dead. Considering these opposing views, the concept of a designer coffin is one that is rare in somewhere such as the UK.

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Yet in Ghana, home of coffin maker Paa Joe and his son/apprentice Jacob, a designer coffin is considered a befitting honour to a loved one. Grand designs of animals, cars or food that represent the character of the deceased. In this small, heartfelt and examining documentary, filmmaker Benjamin Wigley follows Joe as he deals with his own loss and travels to England to display his creations to the public.

Set over a period of four years, we meet Joe and Jacob. Skilled carpenters who once supplied their grand coffin designs far and wide. Now with little business and their legacy in jeopardy, they prepare to travel to England. With an artist’s residency, they have four weeks to create, then display one of their creations to the public. For this opportunity, the pair have chosen the design of a Lion. As they build their coffin, the film compares how Ghana and indeed Joe, deal with death compared to in the UK. But will this exhibition reinvigorate their business?

In only his second documentary film and first feature length, director Wigley has crafted a simple yet warm story. He follows his subjects and contrasts one culture with the one both now visit.

Beginning in Ghana, Paa Joe and Jacob are struggling to use their brilliant craft. Despite a successful career, times have changed and demand for their coffins has faded. Why is not explored in the film but rather the pair receive word they have a four-week residency in England. The opportunity means they will be allowed to create one of their coffins and display their work to the public. Not just an artistic opportunity the pair hope this will invigorate their business.

The pairs reaction to England (particularly our weather), is humorous and will build any audiences affection for both Joe and his son. You watch as the pair beautifully craft their grand design. Once the Lion is underway, the public are asked about the concept of a designer coffin. With mixed reactions, the film draws you back to Ghana, the death of Joe’s mother and how his family and community react.

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What the film does so brilliantly is not just show the evolution of the Lion through Joe and Jacob’s craftsmanship. By viewing a traditional Ghanaian funeral, against UK views on a designer coffin, it examines Western removal from death. As Joe and his family bury his mother, who lived until the age of 107, the preparation and proximity to her is so different from where they now build the Lion. They pick up her body and display it in her bed, for relatives and friends to come and see. Her coffin is carried through the town while songs are sung and words chanted. Every detail is carried out by those closest to her and a funeral is a true celebration of life.

Stylistically, the film is very much a simple observation. The filmmaker rarely gets involved with his subjects, apart from small moments of play. The work that goes into the coffins is clear and the camera lingers over the pairs hand’s at work. The story jumps back to before the pair receive the artist residency as the Lion is being constructed. The film is also intercut with small sections of poetry and images. The poetry indeed adds something but the graphics and visuals in these sections feels at odds with the films naturalistic tone.

A small yet warm and engaging documentary that not only examines art but two cultures treatment of one topic. Simple but with great depth and great subjects in Joe and Jacob.

Find out more about East End Film Festival! 

The Graduate – 50th Anniversary Review

By now, there are certain films that should be made lawful viewing. There should be a precedent, and a criminal punishment for those who reach a certain age without ever seeing these “cultural and historical films.” The late director Mike Nicols possible has most of his films inducted on my imagined list of “watch or be scorned” movies. For example, Closer and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf are perhaps two of the most unnerving yet utterly real excavations of the human spirit on celluloid. Yet one of the few films that passes the lips of everyone and transcends passionate cinephiles lips to become a significant audience loved film is The Graduate.

Re-released today for its 50th Anniversary, The Graduate is still potent as it was back then. And we are still seduced by its ways.

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For those who are unaware, though I feel like I shouldn’t have to, The Graduate revolves around Benjamin Braddock, a young man of the titular variety who is at a loss with what to do with his life. When his family go into business with Mr Robinson, he is seduced by the housewife Mrs Robinson. Only as his parents push him towards her daughter Elaine, he finds himself conflicted with feelings over the two women.

The Graduate gave Nichols his first Oscar win and it’s no wonder. This definitive American drama captured the tinges of comedy and sorrow that come about through the tripe and forced suburbia that different stages of age and regret encompass. Astutely aware of the picket-fence drawl and uncertainty of characters, writers Buck Henry and Calder Willingham alongside Nichols astuteness for drawing out the human ferociousness in his players enhance that minute frustrations that lead people to capture some loss of their essence. Whether it is Braddock attempting to find identity in an affair in a post-college haze, or Mrs. Robinson trying to live vicariously through her daughter or regain control of her own ennui through sex with a young man, there is no denying that The Graduate portrays a cynical yet real look at life behind the curtain net. As the desperation and youthful attraction take hold, the turning tide in the film is wrought and sublimely wielded by Nichols who finds whimsy in his breaking characters.

The Graduate also marked a breakthrough for now acclaimed actor Dustin Hoffman. Despite playing Braddock, an exasperating and often dislikeable character, Hoffman manages to draw you in to the tale and enthuse Braddock with a humanity. What he achieves is a gentle reminder of how post-graduation haze can feel and how that could urge you to act unjustly against those around you. Hoffman achieves the equilibrium of the character through an astute emotional current. Opposite him is the fiery yet excellent Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson and Katharine Ross as Elaine. The two women who enchant Braddock give equally stunning and evocative performances that solidify this film in greatness.

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Often misinterpreted (I believe at least) as some whopping romance or mislead as a superfluous comedy, this is bleak yet humorous melodrama that happily and intellectually captures something deeper than a quick fuck with an older woman. Certainly, as someone who has suffered from what I like to call “The Arsehole Years,” it really harnesses the effect of “Oh, is this life now?” and the subsequent mistakes you make after you take away that flat cap and robe. What’s more is that placing the film in the hands of Mike Nicols is a benefit. His direction acts as an observer, allowing the story to unfold rather than over-saturate.

And let’s not mention than unforgettable and impeccable soundtrack that has transcended the movie into extraordinary heights…

Altogether now…

Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson…

The Graduate returns to the cinemas 23rd June! 

God’s Own Country – Brand New Trailer!

If you want to find a film that addresses some of the deeper issues and social divides in life, don’t go to a multiplex and sit in a darkened room whilst stuffing down popcorn and watching the phones of the people sitting in front of you light up whenever they get a new mention on twitter. Instead, head off to your local independent cinema and feast your eyes on the latest indie darlings the film festival circuit has to offer.

The latest diamond to make itself present is God’s Own Country, Francis Lee’s directorial debut. Set on a farm in Northern England, the story follows Jonny as he discovers a new look on life after he meets one of the new workers and a relationship forms between the two.

It looks to be fairly bog-standard story-wise, but who knows? It may just surprise us yet…

God’s Own Country is out in cinemas September 1st!