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

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.