Sometime in the distant future, after the apocalypse, Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) and Sayat (Selam Tesfaye) live together in a disused bowling alley. When the spaceship that has been hovering in the atmosphere sparks back into life Gagano sets out on a quest to get aboard and, he asserts, return to his home planet. Along the way he is confronted with ‘second-generation’ Nazis, witches and a vindictive Santa Claus, all while Sayat is waiting to see if her beloved will ever return for her.
Country: Ethiopia, Spain, Finland
Language: Amharic, Afrikaans
Director: Miguel Llansó
Cinematographer: Israel Seoane
Writer: Miguel Llansó
Starring: Daniel Tadesse, Salem Tesfaye
Runtime: 68 minutes
Crumbs takes place in a world where the names of Justin Bieber, Paul McCartney and Stephen Hawking are invoked in prayer, a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian landscape where these figures are considered deities, where Michael Jordan has shrines built in his honour and a Michael Jackson vinyl is valuable enough to pay for a whole wedding. These are the crumbs that the title alludes to, the remnants of our civilization that survive the apocalypse, the last remaining signs of happier times. It is a depressing thought that humanity would one day be remembered through nothing but these flimsy pop-culture symbols but this is exactly what Miguel Llansó’s surreal, speculative film wants to draw our attention to.
These references to our times are worked into a story about a diminutive scrap collector, Gagano (Daniel Tadesse), and his ambition to leave the desolated planet aboard a spaceship that has long hovered motionless in the sky but which has suddenly shown signs of life. It’s never quite clear what he needs to do to accomplish this but along the way he must overcome ‘second-generation’ Nazis, a witch and a sinister Ethiopian Santa Claus. It is this Santa that Gagano sets out to find in the first place, a man whose voice can be heard coming from underneath the bowling alley where Gagano and his beloved Sayat (Selam Tesfayie) live, but who actually lives in a cave far away, surrounded by statues of camels and sculpted lion-heads. This man holds the key to Gagano boarding the spaceship, but first he must prove he’s been a good boy.
Still with us? The surrealism of the plot is both the film’s greatest asset and its biggest constraint. On the one hand it is undoubtedly one of the most original stories you will see committed to film any time in the near future, a welcome antidote to the sterile CG of big-budget blockbusters (the whole film, in fact, was produced for around $250,000), but its eccentricity is also alienating. This is mainly because Gagano’s quest is ambiguous beyond its ultimate goal. Why must he find this Santa Claus? Why must he visit a witch to trade his valuable Michael Jackson vinyl? What does he want with a locomotive train? Taken literally, the story of Crumbs makes little to no sense so it’s best not to sweat the small stuff.
Looking beyond its plot Crumbs offers some satisfaction in its distinctive photography, in the arid Ethiopian deserts and forests which Gagano quests across. Like its recent cousins Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and Lost River (2014) it manages to create a world in a convincing state of decay, its monuments fallen to ruin and its playgrounds and funfairs overgrown. Even the spaceship hanging in the atmosphere is rusted from disuse. Crumbs, however, doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as those two films. Many of the relics of our own age that are left scattered throughout the world are given comically misguided appraisals by a trader who seems to hold the keys to the spaceship. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurine is apparently a trophy worn around the neck of a once great warrior; a garishly bright plastic toy sword is a formidable weapon crafted long ago by the legendary ‘Mattelo.’
Miguel Llansó has here created a world of contradictions, one that is set far enough into the future so that our gods are forgotten but where our celebrity idols are worshipped, where buildings have fallen to ruin but where flimsy plastic toys and vinyl discs are in perfect condition. It’s a world where locomotive engines and disused fairground rides still work but where no one knows who Stephen Hawking really was. It’s a world where playground roundabouts spin both ways at once and, despite the vividness of its shooting, its a world that’s hard to believe in. The spaceship that lurks in the air above Gagano is in the shape of a huge hand, like an intergalactic high-five that has been forever left hanging. It’s a joke without a punchline, or at least one that makes any sense.