An Ethiopian odyssey

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The Ethiopian-Spanish co-production Crumbs bucks the trend of realist cinema that
seems to dominate Africa’s film industry, while also forming part of an interesting
counter-trend, arising mostly from the eastern part of the continent, which seems
to indicate an increase in fantastical subject matter.

While the cinema of Africa is incredibly varied in subject matter and social context,
there is at least one, easily identifiable, common characteristic in the continent’s
output: we have a tendency to favour high realism in both subject matter and
treatment.

Social realities and concrete, identifiable human problems appear to be far more
preferable to both audiences and filmmakers than surrealism, abstraction and pure
fantasy. The markets for science-fiction and related genres are severely limited as
a result. Even in South Africa, with its strong Hollywood influences and Western
cultural connections, genre films draw only a tiny section of the country’s content
market and, according to recent audience research by the National Film and Video
Foundation, are far towards the bottom of the list when it comes to consumer
preferences.

Re-emergence of genre film

However, several films have emerged that seem to indicate a growing movement
towards more fantastical subject matter and more fanciful narrative and aesthetic
treatments. Ethiopia, in particular, has shown a growing predilection for science-
fiction in the past couple of years. Last year, the feature film Beti and Amare,
directed by Kenyan-born German filmmaker Andy Siege, hit the festival circuit.
More recently, the post-apocalyptic fantasy Crumbs, written and directed by Addis
Ababa-based Spanish filmmaker Miguel Llanso, was released.

It is interesting to note that both of these films are made by Europeans; it would
appear that the history, people and landscape of the Horn of Africa stir up similar
visions among Western storytellers.

Llanso’s extended Ethiopian adventure began when two disparate influences
suddenly came together: a book on Ethiopian athletes, and the adventure and
romanticism in the films of Werner Herzog. Inspired by these, Llanso decided to go
on a journey to the East African nation. Taking a job at the Spanish embassy in
Addis Ababa, he began exploring what the country had to offer. Having been
involved in writing and filmmaking since his years as a teenager in Madrid, he
gravitated towards the Ethiopian capital’s thriving cultural scene, including its
flourishing “do-it-yourself’ film industry.

A cosmopolitan film

Crumbs, Llanso’s first feature film, is a beautifully designed and shot surreal
fantasy that uses Ethiopia’s diverse landscapes – from natural geysers in the
Danakil Depression to a defunct bowling alley in Addis Ababa – to create a narrative
world that is neither exactly Ethiopian, nor meant to be any other specific location
in the world. It’s a sparsely populated, sometimes threatening, yet utterly beautiful,
imagined world that exists after some unspecified “Big War’. All the dialogue is in
Amharic, which, to anyone outside of Ethiopia, sounds quite otherworldly.
“The film is international, cosmopolitan,’ Llanso says. “It doesn’t talk about the
reality of Ethiopia specifically, but about the world’s situation… Language is not the
theme of the film but Amharic sounds strange and distant for the rest of the world
and that’s good for the movie.’

In this setting, an unusual love story unfolds between Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) and
Candy (Selam Tesfaye). Gagano spends his time collecting the remnants – or
“crumbs’ – of bygone civilisations, from pop culture memorabilia to artificial
Christmas trees – prized rarities scattered throughout the depopulated landscape.
He lives a life of perpetual fear, terrorised by a gang of bizarre neo-Nazis. In the
skies above, a rusting spaceship hovers. For years it has been silent and unmoving
but it is now showing signs of life. Gagano becomes convinced that the ship is the
key to his and Candy’s salvation and sets off on a mission to enter the vessel.

A team of friends

Llanso wrote the lead role for Tadesse. “A person of irregular body and fascinating
expression. I met him at a performance of Federico Garcia Llorca’s Blood Wedding
at the National Theatre of Ethiopia. Since then, he appears in almost all my films,’
he says. In the diminutive Tadesse, a viewer can easily observe the influence of
Herzog in Llanso’s work. He calls to mind Berlin street musician turned actor Bruno
S, whom Herzog cast in The Enigma of Caspar Hauser and Stroszek. He evokes the
same pathos, the same sense of sympathy for the outsider. Crumbs, as well as his
earlier short-form work with Llanso, is turning Tadesse into an international cult
hero. In the role of Birdy, Llanso cast rising star Selam Tesfaye, who has become a
local sensation in her own right – an A-lister in Ethiopia’s burgeoning star system.

Llanso’s crew was half Spanish, half Ethiopian. “We are a team of friends,’ he says.
“That’s important, because it gives us freedom, mutual understanding, teamwork,
versatility and the ability to move together spontaneously. The film was produced
by three Ethiopians – Yohannes Feleke, Daniel Taye Workou and Meseret Argaw,
while director of photography Israel Seoane, editor Velasco Broca and sound
designer Quino Pinero were all brought in from Spain. “We’re a team like
Fassbinder’s,’ says Llanso, “everybody is essential.’

The mix made things interesting on set, with the Spanish crew members speaking
only a smattering of Amharic and the Ethiopian members not knowing any Spanish.
English was the “lingua franca’ on set, with the three producers translating when
necessary.

For Llanso, Ethiopia offers a country far apart from the one in which he grew up and
thus the opportunities for new stories and fresh perspectives on the world, with the
Western prism removed. It also offers a flourishing, youthful film industry that is
soaking up local and international talent and ideas.

“The production and mass exhibition of films began in Ethiopia in 2005 with the
marketing of digital cameras and video editing software,’ Llanso explains. “People
wanted to watch movies in their own language and the old theatres – which had
been about to close down – started to fill again. Soon a small star system
flourished, helped by national television and the production of TV series. Production
is, however, still low budget but this “do-it-yourself’ spirit is very inspiring.’
While Crumbs is an international film that happens to have been made in Ethiopia,
Llanso’s next project is set to be a more authentic – though unusual – Ethiopian
affair, “I’m planning a film about 1960s Ethiopia: hippies, revolutionary movements
in universities, Emperor Haile Selassie’s secret space programme, plots of
espionage and tons of rock “n roll.’

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