We spoke to German director Volker Schaner about his documentary on the life and philosophy of Jamaican reggae and dub pioneer Lee Scratch Perry, entitled Vision of Paradise. The film had its first release in festivals in Europe in mid-2015, and it is finally making its sold-out Australian premiere this month at Golden Age Cinema.
Your film Vision of Paradise has been a long time in the making, some 15-or-so years. I wanted to begin by asking you about the genesis of the project, how did it all start?
It has been a project that I’ve wanted to do since I was 14 or 15 years old. I’ve always been a fan of Lee Perry – I heard his music and I always wanted to do a movie and/or art with him. 15 years later it came [about] through a mutual friend, Guy Leder, a very good artist and filmmaker. We both attacked the movie and said “O.K. let’s do it, we’ll get to know Lee” – and we started it.
Was it difficult getting in touch with him?
Not at all. Guy basically first sent an email, contacted him and then they called us; his wife Mireille called us, and two weeks later we were about to meet and we just told him: “Look ever since I can remember, I’ve had a dream to make a movie with you.” This really caught him, because he believes in dreams like he told us [in the movie].
When you see him, it seems like he’s a little bit in his own world; that he keeps to his own timetable, so to speak. It’s interesting to hear that he was easy to get in touch with and interested in the project.
The moment he sees that you are on the side of the arts and you want to do nice, wonderful things, then he’s more than open to work with you.
Did you find, as a subject, that Lee was forthcoming? Your film isn’t really a traditional biography, but what were his thoughts on someone telling his life story?
It started… I didn’t want to tell a normal biography because first of all there was already a movie called The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Perry [released 2008]. Second of all, I wanted to do this movie much before The Upsetter existed and I wanted all the time to tell [audiences about] the spiritual world of Lee Perry; this world that I saw in the music, this fantastic side of his cosmos or universe. And I didn’t want to tell, of course, when and how and with whom he recorded which song. I wanted to tell the story of what’s behind him, the things that move him. That’s also why it took so long because it takes a little while to understand things, he’s not telling you everything. He’s not putting all the information on the table for you…
He’s also like an enigma, a riddle, and you have to find [things] out because only then you can reach a little bit deeper. And of course, it is the whole Rastafarian cosmos with the battle of good over evil: the good will prevail and there will be after the final battle a new world in this re-installment of paradise. This is why it’s called Vision of Paradise, because everything he is doing in reggae and dub comes from this feeling to reinstall paradise here and now. We can do it immediately if we all just believe it. That’s basically the message in the story, not the biography.
For me, the most striking element of the film is the animated sequences. Could you talk a little about your background in animation and how that influenced your creative decisions in this film?
My background in animation is mostly that I like to watch animation movies! I didn’t do animation myself a lot. But in connection with what I said previously, we wanted to visualise the spiritual world in which Lee Perry is living through animation from the beginning. We had the plan to do animation because this is the only way maybe where you can really give the people a little bit (of) access. Then we had this experience in Ethiopia in the church where you see exactly those creatures that would fit a little bit to visualise this. Then we were very lucky to meet a Romanian artist Maria Sargarodschi — she also created after my descriptions those figures; the demons, the spirits who are fighting against each other and have special names and special duties like “greed”, “addiction” and are supposed to sit on people’s minds and control them. And so this was the basic idea. Maria did it in an amazing way to visualise those figures because they became extremely iconic — that’s what I think.1
In these moments you move away from the strict issue of documentation, of documenting facts, and almost into the realm of fantasy…
In the movie, with the documentary scenes as well, we all the time wanted to establish a feeling that with one foot you are already in a different world. Also with the documentary scenes, you have the feeling that you are somewhere else, it’s not a normal reality, it’s like a magic reality you know? I’m not talking about the South American literary movement but it’s a little bit… you feel it in the movie. When you are with Lee, you are in normal life but all the time, you have the feeling that one half of the reality is happening in a kind of fantastic world. The “normal” reality is not enough here…
… to describe his world, if you like.
Yeah. To be with him, to have the feeling of being with him. Just to be with him, you are already a little bit in a fantasy world, in a comic world, in a fantastic world.
I noticed as well that with a couple of those animated sequences that Lee Perry himself is the one narrating them. Was there a large degree of collaboration like that from Lee with the project in terms of him having a creative role in making the film?
We had been meeting a lot and then of course we ended up talking about the movie and everything around [it]. So it was not a big effort with Lee; when you are in tune with Lee everything just happens like it is. The thing that he was narrating, the fantasy sequence, just came out like so… you don’t have to write them or prepare them, it just comes out, out of nothing. I think he feels very much the vibration of the subject, of the movie, and tunes in and knows exactly what to add. And we didn’t have to edit those words — we just put everything on it and it just fit!
It’s always nice to see that level of interaction between the subject and the filmmaker.
Of course, it’s very nice when you see for all of us, also for Lee, when you see these things coming into existence — you feel euphoria, you know? You’re very passionate and then you see it and then you add things, and then this is a very fantastic way of creating things. And Lee was a very happy part of this, a main part. We were not a very big team; it’s like friends, you know? Like a bunch of two or three friends. So Lee’s just a part of this.
There are a few snippets of interviews with famous musicians — Adrian Sherwood is there, Irmin Schmidt of Can, amongst others — so you had a few famous musicians who have either worked with Lee or were quite familiar with his work. Was that important to you to have their opinions in the film?
It’s a little bit hard only with one person, especially with somebody like Lee Perry. I think it’s very important to give a little distance from time to time, that you switch back to, let’s say “normal” people. And they give you a little distance and a little break and you can relax a little bit. Because the moment the scenes that are with Lee… you need a little bit of time, a little bit of space emotionally to understand them, or digest them as I say. So I think those people, those “talking heads” if you want to call them, they give a very much needed assistance in the movie that allows you in the next scene to dive again into the world of Lee Perry. So, this I think was very necessary.
You’re working on another project at the moment, this time on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The project is called Resurrection in Aksum. It seems there’s some degree of overlap with the Lee Scratch Perry documentary. Did Resurrection in Aksum grow out of the research and the work that you were doing for Vision of Paradise?
Exactly. We’d travelled to Ethiopia and filmed the whole Easter ceremony in Aksum and somehow we were diving into this very special ritual of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The material that we have is just amazing. We shot a lot because the Easter ceremonies are very extensive and we found some things that help us a lot to understand all this cosmos that is also around Lee. The humbleness, the dedication to art and music as a way to entertain God, you know?
In Ethiopia they have around 150 or 200 celebration days where they don’t work,and they’re just praying and singing and dancing, and it’s a very very interesting concept from a western, industrialised point of view. Because you cannot develop industry that destroys the whole environment and makes some people rich and others not when everyone has to pray all day. And I thought this is a really really interesting concept. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to go to church now to save the world, but to do art and music to entertain God, this is a very very interesting concept.
Do you have any idea when that project will be ready?
I hope very soon! But as I said it‘s a lot a lot of materials and we’re just editing it. We have to see when we can do it and hopefully it’s still this year that we can release it. Hopefully Easter 2017! Because it’s about Easter… And it will be for sure released on our Vimeo channel for Vision of Paradise.
Thank you so much for talking to us. It was a pleasure getting to know you and to talk about your work, which is playing here in Sydney soon.
I thank you, it was a pleasure. Enjoy it!
Lee Scratch Perry: Vision of Paradise makes its Australian premiere at Golden Age Cinema on Saturday May 21. These screenings are sold out, but you can buy or rent the film on Vimeo here.