Interview: Miguel Llansó and Yohannes Feleke
In 2010, the Spanish-born filmmaker Miguel Llansó made a short film in Ethiopia, titled Where Is My Dog? Now available on YouTube, it first garnered wider attention in 2011 at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. Drawing its comedy from absurdism instead of traditional means of dramatization in Third World narratives, Where Is My Dog? and Llansó’s ensuing films (such as the documentary short The Second Best) wouldn’t meet any of the guidelines for talking about Africa defined by the 2005 essay “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina. Instead, the protagonists of his films consist—in an almost Seinfeldian way—of grumpy old men nagging at children, leisurely-but-persistent second-best athletes, and (on a more fictitious note) second-generation Nazis, who are sometimes completely unaware of the historical and symbolic meaning behind their identities.
This year, Rotterdam screened Llansó's debut feature, Crumbs, a “post-apocalyptic surrealist science fiction romance,” per its description in the Bright Future premieres section. Following in the same comedic vein as his previous films, Llansó made the film with his regular collaborators: the Ethiopian producer-director Yohannes Feleke, and theater and film actor Daniel Tadesse. The latter plays Gagano, one of the survivors (or perhaps descendants of survivors) of a mysterious apocalyptic event. Tadesse’s unusual physique seems to signal a Surrealist disregard for normative bodies; Llansó previously cast him in the short Chigger Ale, as a clone of Hitler.
Llansó’s fascination with the potentially comical effect of displacing Nazi iconography to an environment as incongruous and inhospitable as the landscapes of post-apocalyptic Ethiopia continues in Crumbs. Gagano sets out on a “hero’s journey” in a world where the biggest antagonist to the orderly logic of Joseph Campbell’s narrative pattern is the filmmaker himself, defying and disrupting the narrative conventions and, by extension, the sanctified iconography of Western culture. More than anything else, Crumbs is an ironic pastiche of Western pop-culture artifacts, which come to include historical symbols of terror like swastikas. Llansó at times explicitly calls attention to their being nothing more than copies of a copy, but also recognizes their hegemonic status and their ability to survive even the apocalypse.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Miguel Llansó and Yohannes Feleke in Rotterdam about making movies in Ethiopia and the unnerving effect of Nazi iconography in cinema.
How did you meet each other?
Miguel Llansó: I went to Ethiopia in 2008 to work for the embassy of Spain, but at the same time, to get a chance to make films. So I started to make a movie about Ethiopian runners and I met Yohannes Feleke and Daniel Tadesse. We started doing the movies together, inspired by Werner Herzog and his kind of films. Daniel Tadesse was acting in the national theater, in a Llorca play, Blood Wedding, adapted for the Ethiopian environment. The play is quite difficult—in Spain, it’s a drama. But in Ethiopia, somehow, the play was really, really funny. They made it into something completely different. And Daniel was cast in the leading role, and when I saw him on the stage, the whole thing was so funny that I said to myself: “I should meet this guy.”
Most Europeans don’t go to Africa to make films about lost dogs or spaceships.
ML: You know, at the beginning, when you go to Ethiopia, you don’t know anything about the country. I was attracted by runners and things like that. But once you get to know it, there are so many interesting things to get to know. And you get tired of the typical image of Ethiopia that we have seen a million times, over and over again. So I started coming up with new ideas. They seemed a bit crazy to Daniel and Yohannes in the beginning, but they went along with it and we are a team now. I started to feel at home and also began to think in those terms. Interesting ideas, the landscapes, the people, the culture, music, and that way, it was easy to expand on the preconceived image of Ethiopia.
Yohannes Feleke: That is what we are working hard to overcome. Because the reality can be very different from its representation. I mean, there is poverty, sure, but there is also beauty. There are so many things you can talk about in Africa, so we are trying to utilize the power of film to promote them.
What is it like to be a filmmaker in Ethiopia?
YF: For me, film is above all a social weapon. It is a window through which you can see the past, the present and the future. But we do almost everything ourselves, without any kind of support. There are no funds, we are not sponsored by any organizations, so getting a chance to come here, to the festival, is a big success.
How do you distribute your films?
YF: The movie industry in Ethiopia is coming out in the past 10 years or so—you might as well say that there was no movies before that. Nowadays, there are around 10 cinemas in Addis Ababa, a few more in other small towns, and we have the option of screening the movies there. Also, we distribute them on DVDs.
ML: The system is similar than in Africa’s most famous movie industry, Nollywood. It all started when digital cameras became widely available and digital projections were made possible through the use of DVD technology. It was also a convenient way of promoting other stuff, such as washing machines. You bought a washing machine and you got a movie, things like that, but also in terms of product placement.
How many films get made in Ethiopia per year, for example?
YF: These days, more than 150 films. In a week, you get three or four new films.
ML: It is more or less the same as in Spain, except that none of them are funded by the state. Everything is financed by the filmmakers themselves.
YF: The problem is that most of them, especially the most successful ones, are terrible. It always has to be a comedy, people want cheap laughs—they are not very funny, even. But these are the films that are the most successful in terms of market. And that is why everyone keeps making the same kind of thing.
What kind of comedies are we talking about?
ML: Comedies about love, mainly.
YF: Romantic comedies about the poor and the rich. In every movie.
ML: Like Cinderella.
YF: It is symptomatic of the social inequality—in a way, it actually reflects reality. But it is also escapism. The poor marry the rich—happy ending.
ML: A happy ending like in Pretty Woman, for example. So, happy, but a little bit terrible at the same time.
So where does Crumbs fit in?
ML: It is a reflection, in a way—of the way globalization is changing things. In the 1960s, Addis Ababa was a really beautiful place with places for people to gather, to come and see, but now it’s a construction site, with only the worst things the West has to offer. Not the libraries, but Beyoncé, YouPorn, things like that. Useless things. It is just another kind of supremacy, cultural supremacy. But this is what is being shared by the West.
I was reminded of The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which a bottle of Coca-Cola is being worshipped—another case of Western pop-culture artifacts occupying a superior, almost divine position.
ML: My family at home keeps a relic—a bond from the virgin from the past—that is worshipped once a year. It is a celebration for the whole town, but I can say with confidence that nobody can tell you anything about this bond. Who was this lady, this saint, the virgin, what did she do? Nobody knows. Everybody comes to the party, everyone worships this bond. For me, it is the same with plastic toy figurines in the post-apocalyptic future. Of course it is ridiculous that you are going to pray to a ninja turtle, but also, why not?
So is that what fascinates you so much about displaced Nazi iconography?
ML: Exactly. Unfortunately, Hitler today is an icon, devoid of its historical meaning. He is merchandise. Through iconization, objects themselves lose meaning, so that is it—Hitler becomes a figurine. It is fascinating to me because it is so extreme. The Nazis are the worst thing that happened in the 20th century, they are the most powerful symbol of evil, and their iconography follows the same process. It is being reappropriated, used and reused, and not always in a subversive way—just look at the German Pegida today.
What do Superman and a Nazi have in common?
ML: They are both super-. It’s interesting that they were both created at roughly the same time. And they personify the essence of the 20th century, which Nietzsche announced some 20 years before, that God is dead. The people are left to themselves to produce meaning. They learn to erase boundaries, they themselves become mythical heroes—well, some of them. So, the Nazis are Supermen. It’s interesting to compare this logic to capitalism and the American dream, for example. Everyone can become anyone, which of course is not true. Though it doesn’t seem like it, only a few can be mythical, only a few can be gods. The essence of both capitalism and the American dream is to push yourself beyond (human) limits.
Also, both Superman and a Nazi want to save the world.
ML: They want to save the world, of course. When you have a mission, when you believe you’re God, that mission is far more important than anything else.
The swastika itself is also very cinematic.
ML: It is, it’s everywhere. It’s in Tarantino, Spielberg, popular films like that, it’s a symbol that you take and put in your film. It is convenient to have an image so powerful, so charged with meaning in a movie where you don’t have time to explain. If I tell a story about Ethiopia, about a town far away, I have to explain everything, because most of the people don’t know anything about it. But if I use a symbol of Nazism, it is easy. Everybody is going to understand because they are within the popular culture.
So, instant evil.
ML: Yes. Of course, ultimately everything depends on the way you use it, you can stay within the system or at least try to question it.