Andrew Hageman and Ashenafi Beyene |
In the rapidly expanding field of critical attention to African speculative/science fiction, old and new, Miguel Llansó’s 2014 post-apocalypse film set in Ethiopia, Crumbs, is emanating a strange magnetic buzz. The rich complexity of the characters, story, landscapes, soundtrack, and themes in this modest-budget independent production reflect the equally complex national and global social imaginaries the film attempts to reach. Combined with icons of science and sport who are instantly recognizable to practically any human viewer on planet Earth are forceful moments of song, religion, and other cultural elements that mark the film as essentially Ethiopian. This short essay explores the Ethiopia-Global dynamics of Crumbs as it rehearses and rewrites generic continuities of speculative/science fiction. Specifically, we examine the representations and roles of religion, consumption of globalized entertainment commodities, and love in a time of human-alien integration as these three aspects of the film critically engage the national-global dynamic of the genre.
To open our exploration, we begin with a very brief synopsis. Crumbs opens with an extended montage of an otherworldly landscape. Amidst the strange and estranging geological formations, the protagonist, Candy, who appears human but believes himself to be an extraterrestrial alien, enters the film. In this post-apocalyptic time and place, Candy subsists by scavenging the wastelands for objects, often mass-produced plastic toys that tied in to science fiction entertainment from outside Ethiopia, which he sells to a cut-throat buyer. In his first appearance, Candy encounters an apparently threatening other wearing a Nazi military uniform and a Mickey Mouse hat. Several such people appear throughout the film, physically assaulting Candy and stealing his scavenged objects. Eventually Candy returns home to Birdy, the human woman he loves and who is in love with him. She begins to have strange dreams and hear voices just as the UFO that has been for years in the sky above them seems to have become active. Candy imagines this is his chance to get home, so he leaves Birdy at home to discover a way to get them both to the ship and this separation puts a test to their love. We’ll leave the synopsis here rather than spoil the conclusion.
In turning to the religion aspect of this critique, recall that apocalypse is about both a radical ending and the radical, previously unimaginable, beginning made possibly when the preexisting worldview, if not world, is swept away. In a narrative like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the father and son protagonists continue to ask questions about God and meaning as they trudge through the gray world toward the coast; in other tales like the Mad Max films, transcendental questions seem largely to have disappeared after the catastrophe, perhaps as just another commodity that no longer danced with the same fetishistic animation when life became a desperate struggle for petroleum and ammunition. Crumbs explicitly presents itself as a post-apocalyptic narrative through a number of recurring motifs that include religious ones.
One of the most potent examples is that the couple at the center of the film practice religious rituals as part of their daily lives, including ongoing prayers that they will conceive a child—in particular, a son. Yet, their religion in this time after the old world’s end is absurd and, in the Ethiopian cultural context, especially offensive. In scene after scene, one or both of the protagonists approach a homemade shrine outside their home—a former bowling alley. The enshrined icon to which they bend their prayers for safety and progeny is a poster of Michael Jordan playing for the Chicago Bulls captured in a classic pose with his tongue out as he’s about to surpass a defender and score. In many of these scenes, the film cuts to a close up of the poster and the camera lingers on Jordan’s face, his tongue—an aesthetic narrative move that combines tragedy and comedy in the representation of their latter-day saint. It is tragically clear that the couple does not know who he was or likely what he was doing when photographed, and, while the image of Jordan saturates the global social imaginary today to such an extent that we might be convinced his image contains something that transcends cultural bounds, the camera’s emphasis of his face seems to use him as a prosthetic tongue to stick out at religion.
This interpretation arises out of the complexity of the Ethiopia-Global dynamic to which the Jordan icon scenes speak. To audiences outside of or unfamiliar with Ethiopia, such moments in the film might seem what Neil Young called “throwaway pop-cultural gags” in his review for The Hollywood Reporter. But that reading only accounts for one audience, asserting a consistency across the Ethiopian and global social imaginaries that elides if not eliminates significant differences. The culture of religious, in particular that of Christian, practice in Ethiopia disallows the prospect of idol worship. Any laughter that these scenes of worship generate in Western audiences must be counterbalanced with the outright repugnance they can generate for local audiences. The incompatible comedy and horror that these scenes embody is all the more pertinent as the object of revulsion is one of the most famous figures of USA-flavored globalization. Inside Ethiopia, where it’s not uncommon to see youth wearing Jordan gear, licensed and otherwise, the spiritually outrageous turning by Candy and Birdy of Jordan into a religious icon is simultaneously an act at the extreme end of the continuum of adopting foreign culture from the West.
Suggestively, Birdy destroys the poster and the shrine in which it’s set as she blames the icon for not answering their prayers. There may be a double significance to this. First, the film seems to critique the formal notion of people requesting and expecting something in return for belief. Second, the Jordan poster as a synecdoche for USA-flavored globalization assigns a specific content to this reprehensible act.
While Michael Jordan is circulating in post-apocalyptic Ethiopia as a religious icon, there are other mass-produced commodities featured in the story as weird crystallizations of globalization without the religious register. Amongst these are a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure and a “Max Steel” plastic toy sword—the film including such details as their manufacturers and points of sale, including Mattel and Carrefour. Scavenging such artifacts of pre-apocalypse human culture to sell to a collector, who, it turns out, is not originally from Earth, is one of the only livelihoods we see in the film. Each time a new artifact is found or stolen, the film shifts to the interior of the collector’s store where the negotiation takes place—the seller always receiving a woefully low sum compared to what he or she asks for initially. During these negotiations, however, the film cuts away for a time to a long take of the artifact floating in outer space with part of the Earth visible behind it. These crappy plastic commodities literally dance balletic spins accompanied by melodic jazz or other musical genres that turn these scenes into quirky riffs on 2001: A Space Odyssey that lend to the overall cultural critique at work in Crumbs.
For the global audience, these scenes may function as science fiction artistic, if heavy-handed, commentary on cultural domination. But, the “Max Steel” sword in particular speaks to the Ethiopian audience on another related frequency. In the first Italo-Ethiopian War, fought in the 1890s, swords were amongst the weapons the Ethiopian soldiers wielded to defend their homeland from Italian colonial invasion. As a generic weapon, the sword still resonates culturally as a symbol of the successful war for freedom and independence—a historically noteworthy war in which an African nation prevented the colonial incursion of a European nation. This culturally-specific, historically-paramount symbolism lends extra charge to the scene in which the Max Steel sword is wrenched readily away from Candy’s hands and sold for a pittance to the scavenged goods shop keeper. As with the Jordan icon and so much of Crumbs, this scene synchronizes comedy and tragedy, global and national cultural critiques.
Finally, Crumbs is a story about post-apocalyptic love, in this case between an alien who resembles a male human and a human woman. Near the very end of the film they talk about the impending birth of their daughter—this after some initial talk about their efforts to conceive a son—so we presume there is a species affinity of some sort in play. This prospect of the hetero-normative Oedipal triangle of Mommy, Daddy, and Me is crucial to the film in two ways. First, throughout the film the protagonist encounters fathers with lost sons, several of whom mistake him for their lost sons. On the one hand, this motif acknowledges the traditional Ethiopian idea that sons are the ones who continue the family lineage. On the other hand, this motif seems to allude to the systemic separation of sons from their families by the Derg regime to bolster its military efforts in the Ethiopian Civil War. Taken together, these two aspects of the lost-son motif re-ground Crumbs as a sophisticated narrative of history and future, nation and planet and beyond.
Second, this love story between an alien and a human being seems to explore questions of hospitality and the heart. We can hear this theme at work in the multiple uses of the contemporary Ethiopian pop star Mahmoud Ahmed’s song “Dink Lij Nesh.” The first time we hear the song, Birdy is singing it, presumably as she emotes and reflects on her love for Candy. Later in the film Santa Claus sings a short piece of the song. Yes, Santa Claus, though, like the singing woman inside the steam-heat register in Eraserhead, this Santa Claus is somehow inside the mechanism of the defunct bowling alley, and, he is simultaneously at the edge of a lake where the protagonist’s long journey from home terminates before he returns to his love. Finally, this song plays over the final scene in which the UFO, which has been suspended in the sky for years, rusting and inert, fires its thrusters and leaves its Earth orbit, occupied by the artifact collector and others who we hear conversing. When Santa sings it, he does so as a figure attached to Christianity and aligned with gift-giving—a figure to whom one submits desires. In the other two times we hear the song—from Birdy and then as soundtrack accompaniment to the UFO’s departure—the contexts involve human beings and aliens, love and coexistence in the severe times of post-apocalyptic scarcity. The song’s lyrics focus on the ineffable nature of love, that one cannot find the words to translate what is felt inside to the very person for whom one has those feelings. As such, Ahmed’s song makes for an apt and aptly recurring anthem for this film that leverages an radically different imagined future to unfetter the present from its overwhelming history of antagonism with aliens—be they warriors from outside and inside the nation and/or consumption-driving profiteers flattening humanity into a single, unified Michael Jordan Fan Club.
Crumbs deserves the buzz as it provokes anyone who encounters it to consider its speculations an unsettling synthesis of Ethiopia in itself and in the ever-unfolding processes of globalization.
Bould, Mark, Editor. 2014. “Africa SF” Issue of Paradoxa, 25.
Llansó, Miguel. 2015. Crumbs. Lanzadera Films.
Young, Neil. 2015. “’Crumbs’: Rotterdam Review.” The Hollywood Reporter. 2/3/2015. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/crumbs-rotterdam-review-769555
Andrew Hageman is Assistant Professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, USA, where he researches and teaches intersections of techno-culture and ecology.
Ashenafi Beyene is a student at Luther College with a keen interest in ethics in the social imaginary.
 For a powerful glimpse into this expanding critical sub-field, see Mark Bould’s “Africa SF: Introduction” to Paradoxa, 25, 2014 and the range of essays included in this issue.