Director: Herbert Brödl
Country: São Tomé e Príncipe
São Tomé e Príncipe is both one of the world’s smallest countries and one of its youngest, having only been independent since 1975. Consisting of a handful of islands off the coast of West Africa, São Tomé’s tiny population and geographical remoteness have made it a difficult environment in which to make films – leaving me with very few options to represent it on this blog. In fact, as far as my lengthy research could determine, there has only been one São Toméan feature film production in the country’s history: 1998’s Little Fruit from the Equator.
Finding the film itself proved rather difficult. There was precious little information about it online, and certainly no DVD or VOD copies available. Many films from small African nations have found wider distribution online in the last few years, but Little Fruit truly seems to have fallen through the cracks, despite representing the entire cinematic output of a whole country. Its IMDb entry is very sparse, as is its Wikipedia page. Ordinarily, my next step would have been to try and contact the director themselves, as I did with Hachimiya Ahamada for her film Ashes of Dreams. But unfortunately Herbert Brödl, the director of Little Fruit, passed away in late 2015.
I reached out instead to the film’s cinematographer, Volker Tittel, who graciously agreed to help me. My correspondence with Volker lasted several months, and a complete copy of this forgotten film proved maddeningly elusive. However, Volker, who in turn contacted Herbert Brödl’s widow on my behalf, was eventually able to provide me with an English-subtitled copy for the purposes of this blog. I would like to begin this entry by expressing my sincere gratitude for their help, without which I likely never would have been able to watch this truly unique film, nor cross off a particularly obscure country from my list.
Little Fruit from the Equator is a road movie with strong supernatural elements – a formula I’ve encountered before on this blog in my entry for Bhutan. It opens with an elderly São Toméan woman on her deathbed, calling out for her son who lives on another island. As she passes from this world to the next, her cries are finally answered, but the gods have a strange sense of humour… An enormous breadfruit – taller than a person – falls from the sky and lands at the feet of her son, miles away. At first perplexed by this bizarre gift from the heavens, Senhor But decides he is meant to bring the giant breadfruit to his mother’s bedside. Intrepid and determined, he sets out on an island-hopping journey with his friends, family, and the miraculous object which he affectionately names “Little Fruit”.
On this journey, Senhor But encounters wildly varied reactions to “Little Fruit”. To some, like the American tourist who jogs alongside their procession for a while, it is a curiosity. To others, like the residents of a small town in which they stop for the night, it is an object of religious worship. Indeed, local government and military forces begin to take notice of the commotion which seems to follow “Little Fruit”, leading to heightened tensions in the film’s second half. Like many films on this blog, the cast consists of locals with no acting experience. But the performances never feel amateurish, and the occasionally stilted delivery actually enhances the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere. Like the best road movies, Little Fruit gets by with a few compelling leads, and a large supporting cast of colorful characters to meet along the way.
Little Fruit is apparently part of a cycle of “equator films” directed by Brödl. The metaphorical significance of the equator as a boundary between two worlds, specific yet permeable, plays a big role in the film’s storytelling. As Senhor But struggles to understand what he is meant to do with his mother’s final, supernatural gift, the worlds of the living and dead often seem to blur together. The opening scene, for example, depicts a lively funeral procession for the old woman, with a tone both celebratory and mournful. The equator is not only the meeting point of north and south, suggests Little Fruit, but also of life and death. In Germany, this film’s tagline reads “am Äquator ist alles möglich”, or “at the equator, everything is possible”.
The search to obtain a copy of Little Fruit from the Equator was one of the longest I’ve undertaken for any film so far. It’s a relief, therefore, to find that the film is so interesting and unique as to be worth the wait. To me, the appeal of a film like Little Fruit is twofold. First, it is a quirky, surreal, fairy tale fantasy about the relationship between life and death. And second, it is a showcase for the culture, history, and scenery of São Tomé e Príncipe. With supernatural themes but a travelogue visual style, the film blends deeply spiritual ideas with down-to-earth realities of São Toméan life, and does so in a way that is truly spellbinding.