Cinema Africa: Miguel Llansó On Directing Ethiopia's Post-Apocalyptic Sci-fi Film, 'Crumbs'

Okayafrica sits down with Miguel Llanso, the director of the Ethiopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, 'Crumbs.'

Daniel Tadesse in Crumbs

In the third installment of Okayafrica’s new Cinema Africa series, Neyat Yohannes sits down with Miguel Llansó, the director of the Ethiopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature, ‘Crumbs.’ Be sure to also check out our premiere of an exclusive clip from the film.

Miguel Llansó’s newest project, Crumbs, is his first feature-length film and it’s definitely making waves in the world of science fiction. You may have also heard of Chigger Ale, a short film of his with similar elements that unofficially serves as a preface to the aforementioned sci-fi flick. Llansó serves as the manager of Lanzadera Films, “an independent company that focuses on films of undiscovered countries, experimental, weird, hallucinatory, poetic fiction and documentary films.” On the site, you’ll find other projects that Llansó has written, produced, and or directed. In the conversation below, we sit down with the Spanish-born filmmaker for the latest installment of our new Cinema Africa series.

Neyat Yohannes for Okayafrica: The narratives most audiences expect to see coming out of Africa revolve around war, famine, and general societal discontent. Crumbs, along with other recent films, proves that this doesn't have to be the case. Is this something you consider when envisioning new projects?

Miguel Llansó: When I came [to Africa] for the first time, I only knew about runners and about famine. So I was really upset with this image because I knew that something different should happen there, no? And I wanted to discover it because I have this spirit of adventure. I wanted to discover what was going on there and I discovered nice music like Alemayehu Eshete Mahmoud, all the music from the sixties. And also, I started discovering landscapes and the people. I started to discover that the people, everywhere in the world, have to dream a little bit. So you're not only going to portray what you see. You are going to make the people, and yourself, dream. Sometimes people ask, "If you go to Africa, don't you have to portray what you see?" No, you can also dream, you can also play with the reality.

What is your relationship to Ethiopia and how did you come to make the country's debut "post-apocalyptic sci-fi" feature?

I went to Ethiopia in 2008. I found a job at the Embassy of Spain and I really wanted to discover what was going on there. I had my friend, Daniel Taye Workou, who is a producer in Ethiopia, and he told me, "You should come." I couldn't find him, it was like 2006 or 2007, and I couldn't find his email. But when I was in Ethiopia, I found him in the supermarket. I spotted him by chance. He was like, "What the fuck are you doing here?" And I was like, "I told you I was going to come out!" It was curiosity that brought me there. Curiosity about things. All my life, I've been a fan of science fiction, of surrealism, of philosophy--because I studied philosophy--and so I think it's a very good way to think about the reality in which we are living. Science fiction, for me, is a way to exaggerate, to think about other worlds, to exaggerate the issues of this world. Like, for instance, 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World--all of these writings are always exaggerating the relations we have in this world so that you can think better on this world. It was the same in Ethiopia for me. Starting from the reality, trying to think about this reality, and then trying to come back to this reality.

What inspired the Michael Jordan shrine and what was the process of selecting the 21st century artifacts like? Do you have a favorite that didn't make the cut?

Oh yeah, good question. For me, Michael Jordan was a hero when I was like 10, 15 years old. He was my childhood. But at the same time, it was very curious because he was a very admirable person in terms of sports and then, he started selling shoes. I would say that is like so crazy. Why do you have to start selling shoes? Michael Jordan, he became a brand. I saw that at the end of the 20th century, the beginning of the 21st century. You cannot only be like, a very good filmmaker or just very good. You should become a brand, which is terrible. Because then, everything becomes merchandise. His value was good, he was a good sportsman. Why does he have to be a successful businessman?

So brands are everywhere, you know? I was very worried about all these objects that, for me, have a lot of meaning. I was worried that they were only merchandise and they were only a way to produce money and power. So I was very upset with that and I tried to portray this double face. Double face is, "I love this object. This object is a part of my childhood and of what I am," but at the same time, it's only just a piece in this big machine of producing merchandise for one [group of] people to exploit another. That was, more or less, the dark side and the bright side of every object in the movie.

Is this a film about globalization that just happens to be set in Ethiopia with Ethiopian actors or would you say the location plays a crucial role in the film?

I didn't want to make a movie about Ethiopia, but I wanted to make a movie thinking about Ethiopia and about everywhere else. For me, landscapes and what is happening in Ethiopia inspired me to explain what is going on in the world. Because, you see, every process of globalization that is happening in Ethiopia is happening in the rest of the world. Which is mass production and also the disappearance of meaning and of sense.

In Crumbs, everybody's kind of lost. Everybody has to invent or create meaning because nobody has a reference anymore. So I think in this mass production of objects and things, you're kind of losing the meaning of everything. All of these abandoned places, all of these abandoned people, all these things about to fall apart are like a metaphor of what is going on with world globalization. An example would be Dubai, full of consumerism and a lot of activities, but it's empty because what's the meaning of this life? There are a lot Ethiopians working in Dubai who are treated almost like slaves. It's so terrible. So what's the meaning of all this consumerism? Of buying things? What's the meaning, relating to happiness? With our values? Do they have any values? So I think this Ethiopian landscape inspired me to think about that globalization process and the meaning of things and the meaning of life.

Watch our premiere of an exclusive clip from Crumbs.

Paired with overcast skies and a haunting mood, the shooting locations of this film really do evoke post-apocalyptic vibes. How did you go about scouting these surreal spots?

When I was living in Ethiopia in 2008, I started traveling because I love to travel and also I was traveling a lot working for the Embassy, so I started to find these kinds of places. Like, for instance, the rail tracks. The rail tracks were built by the European Union in 2009. I thought that they were train tracks from the seventies or the eighties because they were like ruins--it's like a metaphor for the European Union.

So I was listing down all the locations. The locations are ruins, abandoned places that represent different kinds of pasts that were cut. Every ruin represents a possible future that was never accomplished. Like the train tracks, but also the bowling alley. Because the bowling alley was a place from the sixties in Addis Ababa, where everybody was getting together to talk the whole afternoon, to stay with friends, to play. But this bowling alley has been substituted by the commercial malls with the cafeterias and with the shops. It's a different kind of concept. So the possible future through the bowling alley was cut by this new way of consumerism and relations. Every ruin, every abandoned place, was suggesting something. So I didn't think, "I'm gonna make a movie about globalization and I'm gonna find the locations," but the opposite. I found sets and locations and these strange places, thinking, what's the meaning of these places? And what's the meaning of this cut future that was abandoned? And then I started thinking about the movie.

The pawnshop scenes force me to think about the value of things. What inspired them?

It was inspired by this horrible TV program, that American program, Pawn Stars. The pawn shop also has a double face, because everything that comes to the pawn shop has a memory behind it. The pawn shop owner, he knows about all objects, so he has the memory of the past. He has a historical memory, which is good. It's the same as the TV program; all the people working there can tell you about exactly where a piece is coming from. But at the same time, what is a pity is that these objects only become [either] valuable or not valuable. You go in with something that you think is a relic and "Oh mam, they're only gonna pay you $1 for that." And you go in thinking they're going to pay you one million. So what matters at the end in these kind of terrible places is the monetary value of the thing, which is a pity.

So the guy in the pawn shop, he wants to take advantage of the object, in terms of money, which is a representation of capitalism. Where the sentimental value of things doesn't matter anymore, but what can I get out of that? I watch that show here in Spain after lunch--but not anymore--and I was like, these guys, they know about every object. But the thing is, at the end, it's a question of money. Which, I don't like.

Courtesy of Miguel Llansó
There's a scene during which Selam Tesfaye's character prays to figures like Justin Bieber. It seems comically absurd in the film, but can it be argued that this is the current state of things?

Yeah, I mean the other day, David Bowie died. And you have all these people from the fifties, sixties, and seventies who are not comparable to Justin Bieber. Because I think Justin Bieber is a mass product. He's just a product for the masses. I think during the sixties, it was the opposite. When there was someone good, he was grabbing attention more and more because he was someone interesting and he was not a product. But I think in the sixties and seventies, it started to change. It's very curious because you can't put the future on the same level. I think there is a very big difference between the artist in the past and the artist, or what we call the artist, nowadays. Artists in the past, they had to fight to be recognized. Artists nowadays, they are thinking more about how to be famous and how to get money rather than how to produce something beautiful for the world, something that really changes the world. They are kind of philosophical concepts because in reality, it's not like that.

You have several shorts and now a feature film under your belt. Are there any forthcoming projects we can get excited about?

Yeah, I want to make a couple of movies. I want to make a movie about the sixties in Ethiopia. Mixed with science fiction, of course. Because the sixties in Ethiopia were a moment that was a revolution, the students' revolution was going on. And it was the revolution that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, for good or for bad. But it was a moment of freedom; people at the University were really fighting for something better. The people in Ethiopia were in tune with the rest of the world because the sixties were really like the last hard revolutions where everybody was thinking about the totality, about the meaning of the world. We should build a world for that. I think Ethiopia was really interesting at this time so I want to mix it with a secret space program of Haile Selassie, which never happened, but it will happen in my movie. Russian spies, robots, and the revolution.

Neyat Yohannes is an Eritrean-American freelancer who’s from LA, but just moved to the Bay. You can follow her on Twitter at @rhymeswithcat or check out her portfolio here.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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