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.
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.
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.