A sci-fi journey through post-apocalyptic Ethiopia

The movie “Crumbs” is a surreal love story written and directed by a Spaniard, filmed in Ethiopia with an all-local cast. Is this the future of globalisation?

Spanish film director Miguel Llansó took a job at the Spanish Embassy in Addis Ababa so that he could conduct research into Ethiopia and ultimately make his own film. The result is Crumbs, the first post-apocalyptic sci-fi love story to be filmed in the East African country.

The 68-minute film tells the story of Candy (Daniel Tadesse), a strange-looking and diminutive scrap collector who – tired of picking up the crumbs of previous civilisations (Michael Jackson merchandise features prominently) – leaves his girlfriend, Birdy (Selam Tesfaye), to embark on an epic journey through post-apocalyptic Ethiopia.

The country is home to some extreme landscapes that provided the surreal settings of extraterrestrial fantasy Llansó was after. He began making films and music as a teenager growing up in Spain, and was always drawn to others with uncompromising visions. “I love Herzog's films, where the shooting was an adventure. I discovered several filmmakers who shot in Africa such as Ousmane Sembene, Moustaphá Alassane or Jean Rouch,” he says.

Llansó both write and directed Crumbs, which had its world premiere earlier this year at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, where it was warmly received and picked up by IndiePix in the US for international distribution. The movie is being screened this week at Cinéma l’Entrepôt in Paris as part of the L'Europe autour de l'Europe Film Festival.

We spoke to Llansó about being a foreign film director in Ethiopia, what inspired this beguiling movie and surviving quicksand, bandits and the hottest place on earth during filming.

This project was a collaborative effort by Spanish, Ethiopian and Finnish production companies. What do you say to those who say the film is a non-Ethiopian production?

Frankly speaking, I care very little about the nationality of the film. I’m not looking for any kind of national purity or identity. It’s a co-production. It’s international. I’m looking forward to making films with my friends and showing that globalisation should be an action taken by the people rather than the banks and the transnational crap.

You have said that the story for Crumbs was inspired by the words of Ethiopia’s first graduate in nuclear engineering, Professor Seifu Yohannes: “All these pharaonic dreams will be reduced to a series of cheap plastic figurines floating in the stratosphere once everything has finally exploded. The American dream will soon enough end up devastating you…” What are your views on the “decay of civilisation” and the meaninglessness of Western iconography?

Globalisation could be focussed on sharing cultures, on generating ideas for global progress, on convivence, happiness, equality of opportunities or on the idea of cosmopolitanism. But in essence, globalisation means the emergence of a new global feudalism. Feudal lords are the enormous companies that determine our tastes, create trends and fashions and take money offshore. They provide us with clothing, they feed us, show us the news, dictate our agendas and give us paper called “money”. Even if you work really hard, you can’t create “money”, but they can do it. Sure they can!

In the streets of Addis Ababa it’s easier to buy a Beyoncé record than one by Mahmoud Ahmed.

Products and symbols such as Paris Hilton come into our homes robbing our time, our thoughts and our money. While this is not terrorism, it’s really scary.

In your view how strong is the influence of Western culture in Addis Ababa today?

Unfortunately, what mostly runs today everywhere is Western trash and Arab ultra-capitalism. In the 1960s, some buildings in Addis Ababa – like the garden in Hotel Ghion or Cafe Lagare – were spaces built for people to go and chat all afternoon. People discussed life and politics. These places called people to reflection, criticism and subversion. But today’s malls and concrete are proliferating,  and they have a very different goal. Configuration of architecture and space defines where a city is going in terms of lifestyle, the interest of the people and how the powers maintain the status quo due to the distribution of public space.

The sci-fi genre of this film makes it unlike any that have come out of Ethiopia to date. How have Ethiopians reacted to the film?

Crumbs has not been released yet in Ethiopia, but soon… We don’t know how the audience is going to react. Imagination, fantasy and poetry don’t prevail in today’s movies in Ethiopia.

Crumbs has been picked up by a number of international film festivals. In comparison, what has the reaction of international audiences been like?

Audiences congratulate us for avoiding the typical image of Ethiopia. Mass media is very backward and reproduces the same image again and again: human poverty, historical backwardness. The simple fact of addressing a reality from a different perspective – Ethiopia as a set for science fiction, future and fantasy – causes strangeness and wonder.

Was it entirely self-funded? Is there any support for film in Ethiopia?

The film is a Spanish-Ethiopian co-production funded by my friends: the producer Sergio Uguet de Resayre, together with producers Daniel Taye Workou and Meseret Argaw and the crew, who invested their work. In Ethiopia there are no public funds to support art and in Spain the funds have practically vanished. The Spanish government prefers to use public funds to save banks and rich people who threaten to leave the country taking their business elsewhere. Actually rich people and banks have lost millions of euros risking other people’s money, but the government insists that art and filmmaking are very risky professions.

One of the locations of the film – a surreal volcanic landscape near Dallol in northern Ethiopia – is billed as one of the hottest place on earth. What was it like filming there?

When we left Dallol at 1pm the temperature rose to 46 degrees Celsius. Overnight in the desert it seemed like someone had left an aircraft turbine turned on. At night, in the silence of the desert, someone had pressed the button to mute the sound of life.

During the making of the movie were there any unusual or challenging experiences?

There was a very awful day for Israel Seoane, the cinematographer. In the morning he fell into quicksand and in afternoon hit his head on the beam of a cottage. Toward the end of the evening he fell from his horse! Meanwhile, our soundman Quino Piñero got sick with a stomach bacteria. Fortunately, both are indestructible. Another day, some bandits claimed ownership of one of the locations and increased the fee with the help of their AK-47!

You have worked with lead actor Daniel Tadesse Gagano on previous films (Chigger Ale). What is he like to work with?

I wrote Crumbs for Daniel Tadesse. He is an extraordinary actor. Being a person with a small and irregular body, he produces strange and different feelings: from pathos and comedy to nobility, courage and fellowship. He helps us to enter into a dream world and use our imagination. Daniel Tadesse is the most professional actor I’ve met in Ethiopia. He is always willing to go beyond any limit and to take any risk.

Crumbs makes use of the Amharic language with English subtitles. Was language ever an issue during filming?

I speak very little Amharic – just a few words and simple sentences. I’m learning very slowly. But both Yohannes Feleke and Meseret Argaw helped me to translate. Language is not the theme of the film but it sounds strange and distant for the rest of the world and that’s good for the movie. Beyond that, language wasn’t a issue.

Ethiopia is billed as one of the fastest-growing African economies and with that there seems to be an emerging creative class from art and music to fashion and film. What were your observations of the country’s creative scene?

Ethiopia has had an emerging film industry since 2005, when the first digital cinema exhibition circuit was established. People realised that films in their own Amharic language could be shot with an affordable budget and screened on DVD in many of the old theatres that were almost falling apart. The audience response was spectacular and a film industry emerged. Of course, a small percentage of artists with cosmopolitan ideas within the new middle class have also emerged, however economic growth in Ethiopia like elsewhere is very unevenly distributed. The development of free culture and art scenes aren’t a priority. The ideology of globalisation is much more focussed on luxury, opulence, distinction, hierarchy, control and deactivation of any form of dissent.

What can we expect from you next?

From now on, there is a long way to distribute Crumbs worldwide. New Europe Film (Poland) is sending it to hundreds of festivals. Indiepix is going to premier the film in the US. In summer Crumbs will be screened in South Africa. The venue is still a secret. Do you see? We’re making a very nice international team. It works! Then afterwards, I'll start a new project with my friends.