By ROCCO THOMPSON
There’s weird…and then there’s JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY. Spanish director Miguel Llansó’s sophomore feature has been referred to as “The Matrix on acid,” but that descriptor does little to prepare viewers for this inventive exercise in utter, hand-crafted absurdity.
In the year 2035, Special Agent Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) dreams of leaving the CIA to run a pizza truck with his wife Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas). Before he can hand in his resignation, a strange cyber virus attacks Psychobook, the CIA’s operating system, forcing Gagano to enter cyberspace via virtual reality to combat the threat. Before long, the virus starts to bleed into the real world, destabilizing the fragile socio-political order for its own ends, and Gagano, trapped in the VR world, must find a way out before it’s too late. A student of philosophy and diehard fan of punk music and experimental films, Llansó draws everything from Afro-futurism and East Asian Exploitation to Cold War paranoia and Batman into JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY’s seriously whacked out–and entertaining–orbit.
Rue Morgue sat down with the filmmaker to chat about his influences, why he’s drawn to working in Ethiopia, and how COVID-19 impacted the film’s life on the festival circuit.
What was the “seed” that grew into JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY?
I had a dream where I became a disgusting fly. My former girlfriend was running away from me saying, “look what you have turned into!” A year later, I was driving through the deserts of Almeria in the south of Spain with my new girlfriend. We were lost, but a giant statue of Jesus Christ on the top of a hill was pointing the direction to follow. Luckily, we got out of the desert and onto the highway. We were safe. I though about Jesus, walking through one of these cowboy towns in Almeria where Sergio Leone shot most of his films. Instead of bullets, he would kindly reflect about the past without being too harsh on himself. But I really wanted to make a film about my actor, Daniel Tadesse, becoming the Emperor of Ethiopia and losing that imperial condition, going back to normal. In the three cases I mentioned here, the question of fragmented identities popped up into my mind.
Where there any lessons learned on your first feature, Crumbs that informed your work here?
Crumbs showed me the power of subverting symbols. To be more specific: a Ferrari isn’t just a car, but a symbol of high status. Barbie and Ken aren’t just dolls, but an idea of family. When we transform symbols, laughter and feelings of freedom burst forth. In [this film], Batman isn’t our childish hero anymore, but a cocaine addict. I get pleasure from the freedom of playing with meaning, although some people can get very angry about it. Jesus Christ [as a symbol] is almost untouchable, but I just wanted to make an empathic guy out of him, a more up-to-date version. A heavy metal fan who is and isn’t Jesus at the same time. Because Jesus will never think he’s Jesus nor God. He’s just a guy. Crumbs showed me that people and society would die for their symbols. Your neighbor will kill to keep his Ferrari, and not just because he doesn’t have any other way to go to work. He would kill himself before he took the metro. If his Ferrari is stolen, his world will fall apart in crumbs.
You often film in Ethiopia. What keeps you coming back?
Ethiopia makes me dream and imagine. In Addis Ababa, there is a tavern for traditional music called Fandika. I was going there several nights a week. Sometimes, Michael Jackson would enter the bar and do some moonwalks all around the place before vanishing. One night, I was in another bar several miles away from Fandika. Michael Jackson would come in again and perform his moonwalk. I asked my friend Yohannes whether he had seen what my eyes were witnessing. Apparently that Michael Jackson was quite popular in the city. Another day, we were researching Ethiopian runners in a remote region of Oromia, the South East. We entered one of the mud houses (tukul) and drank a very bitter yogurt. I felt like I was experiencing the cradle of humanity. But in the cottage near by, somebody started playing “Bomba” from a radio cassette. You know, “¡Para bailar esto es una bomba!”
This is your fourth time working with Daniel Tadesse. Can you tell us a bit about how you found each other?
Daniel Tadesse was playing secondary roles in the films of my friend Yohannes Feleke. I met him a couple of times in Addis, but I never considered him for any role. Those days, I was making a documentary about a 95-year-old marathon runner, Wami Biratu. I got invited to the Ethiopian National Theatre to see a version of Federico García Lorca’s “Blood Wedding.” Lorca’s tragedies are quite tough and passionate, but I guess the Ethiopian director didn’t perceive the Spanish grass-root violence, and turned the play into something more Tarantino-esque. So, here I am inside the elegant room of the National Theatre. On the stage, the tragedy is going to take place. The two families are going to kill each other over a vendetta. And who’s the bridegroom? Daniel Tadesse Gagano. I couldn’t believe such subversion. Lorca would be so proud looking down at the show from the sky.
There’s a head-spinning number of film and cultural references in JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY, but what would you say are your main influences?
I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious, but Hieronymus Bosch and the Flemish painters from the Renaissance like Pieter Bruegel. I found the same Horror vacui (i.e. a fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition) in the icons and paintings of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches as well. The paintings are very violent and many people’s heads are cut off, but now we look at them as something naive. The power of symbol was stronger than the intent to make something realistic. Besides this iconography, I can mention Buñuel (Un Chien Andalou) and the transgressiveness of the films made in Uganda’s Wakaliwood.
Did the filming process present any unique challenges?
Not really. What we normally do is a very long process of location scouting. Sometimes it takes me years. In Ethiopia, Yohannes told us about an old guy that was building a system of caves over more than 40 years near Shashemane. We went there and talked to him. An angel came into his dreams and told him to build these tunnels and caves, so he did. He offered his tunnels to the Orthodox Church, because he believed his work had some religious meaning, but the church saw nothing sacred there. So, at that time, the guy was renting the caves for young couples that didn’t have any place to make love. He was very happy to allow us to perform some Kung-fu scenes there. In Latvia, we visited the biggest Soviet bunker of the Baltics. We attended the tourist visit and asked quite a lot of questions. At the end of the visit, I asked whether I could shoot my movie there, and they said yes. I guess it’s a question of being nice and polite, then you can conquer the world.
What were some of the most difficult effects to achieve in JESUS?
We made some stop motion pixelation. This means that I animated frame by frame with my brother Guille and my friend Agu. We treated the actors as puppets. We’d take a picture, make them move one inch, take another picture, and this would last for hours and hours until they entered into a sort of trance. The actors start abandoning their humanity and become dolls. This is good for the ego, because the ego fades. Actors want to put their faces on film, but we turned them into puppets and masks covered their faces. You can try this at home. For instance, try to cross your living room at the lowest speed you can achieve. If you feel you’re still too fast, try to do it slower and slower until you’ve almost stopped, but you’re still moving. After a while, your brain is sliding into the abyss of subatomic particles. We wanted to shoot the whole film this way, but we realized that we wouldn’t finish it until the year 2170, and we’d most probably be dead by then.
For a film so surreal and madcap, JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY has a solid narrative through-line. How did you go about structuring it?
My favorite genre – I forgot to mention – is tragicomedy. Tragicomedy has a unique structure, going back to Homer’s “Odyssey.” The structure of the tragedy is quite simple: in his attempts to go back home and reach happiness, the hero is crushed by fate, which is unpredictable. We feel empathy for the hero, because we understand his impotence. It’s important to distinguish between the childish tales of Hollywood where the epic hero saves the world, and the tragic tales where we are all in the hands of an uncontrollable fate, at the mercy of the gods. In tragicomedy, the hero is brave but weak, lucky or unlucky, naive. The most important thing is that at least he tries. They way I structured the story is also quite simple: Gagano wants to go back home and open his pizzeria with his beloved Malin. The gods – Batfro, Stalin, George Bush, the CIA and whatever else pops up into my mind – use him as a puppet.
The films seems to have done well with festival audiences. What has that experience been like?
I love going to festivals, because I get to watch inspiring films and meet very passionate people. The good thing about festivals is that you’re both the artist and the audience. With Crumbs, I made 50 trips in two years. With JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY, I made around fifteen trips, and things were looking very promising, but then our friend Corona fucked things up. But I’m very excited to be working with Arrow Video, and you know why? Because Arrow is able to build a community of genre lovers and make them discover astonishing films. There are many platforms that have tons of content and they want more and more. They want everything. But we’re lost within tons of trash and abundance. The good distribution companies like Arrow Video do an incredible curatorial job so people don’t feel lost. And my film being physically close to Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a dream come true.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
Inspiration to go home and start making their own shit.
JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY is now streaming exclusively on The Arrow Video Channel.