Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Neptune Frost, dir. Williams & Uzeyman (2021)

Neptune Frost, dir. Saul Williams & Anisia Uzeyman. Swan Films, 2021. Starring Elvis Ngabo, Cheryl Isheja, Kaya Free. 110 minutes.

Reviewed by Francesca Forrest

Neptune Frost, a mystical sci-fi musical set in Burundi and filmed in Rwanda, is the creation of codirectors Saul Williams (a songwriter and poet) and Anisia Uzeyman (a director and actor). It draws on Williams’s albums Martyr Loser King (2016) and Encrypted and Vulnerable (2019) and was financed via a 2018 Kickstarter campaign.

In the Kickstarter pitch, Williams suggested that it would be a potent, good thing if a film were to be made by a poet

who sees how power corrupts and obstructs, who isn’t interested in disaster and poverty porn, who thinks it’s a kind of colonial projection when dreams of distant galaxies are embedded with fears of being colonized by aliens, who thinks the internet, like poetry, is undefeated, who thinks the job of the poet is to decode … who has never truly danced in a movie theater and thinks it’s a shame, who knows each rhythm tells a story.

And he made an appeal: “Help me fuck shit up. With beauty.” Backers responded, and Williams came through. The result is a film it’s very hard not to get up and dance to.

Neptune Frost follows the journeys of Neptune, an intersex runaway (played by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), and a coltan miner, Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse). It celebrates the explosion of creative rebellion that results when they meet up, but the film’s impact comes not from narrative but from the interweaving of music, visuals, and multilingual poetry. It’s impressionistic and dreamlike: the audience is challenged to tease out its own threads of meaning. Some viewers will find this frustrating; others will be stimulated.

What initially lodged most thornlike in my mind was the interbraiding of pessimism and optimism, powerlessness and resistance. Talking about the power imbalance, Memory (Eliane Umhire), the leader of a hacker collective, says:

We feed weapons manufacturers. When we take away the hand that feeds, what do you think we face? Weapons.

This is the heart of the imbalance: laborers can withdraw their labor, but oppressors can use force to compel it. But at the very end Neptune makes a contrasting statement, directed at the audience, who at that moment stand in for the oppressor: “My truth is encrypted, and yours is easy to read.” This is true even on the level of language: in the film, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French, and English are all spoken. How many of those languages will Western viewers understand? More than two? The characters—and the actors/musicians—are encrypted, but the (Western) audience is easy to read. The scales tip the other way.

But what emerged for me as an even more fruitful theme was the falsity of binary thinking—“binary crime theory,” as one song calls it. Neptune slides between sex and gender presentation, defying a binary, and that defiance of binaries and borders permeates the film. The raw ore, coltan, for example, that produces the tantalum necessary for capacitors in smartphones, weapons systems, and aerospace technology, seems worlds away from those items in their finished form. But early on, Tekno, one of the coltan miners, holds a chunk of coltan above his head and falls into a trance, as if using the coltan, in its raw state, to commune directly with the high-tech world it makes possible.

Collaborator/insurgent, living/dead, powerful/powerless, and old and new—these binaries all get challenged. In an interview Marya E. Gates conducted with Uzeyman and Williams, Uzeyman declares, “The story is all about binary questions,” and she highlights the poetry of having an intersex character connect “technology with ancestry … mythologies with the future.”

The casting also reinforces mixed roles and multiplicity. The actors portraying the escapee miners are themselves refugees, and also musicians, as is lead actor Bertrand Ninteretse (under the name Kaya Free). Trésor Niyongabo, who plays Psychology, is also a journalist, and Cécile Kayirebwa, who plays a nun with the story of Neptune’s origins, is a beloved Rwandan singer and poet. Williams has publicly thanked both her and another actor, Ngangare Eric (who plays the fantastically costumed Potolo the Avatar), for their help with lyrics translation.

Like life itself, the film is an experience that doesn’t come with preformulated answers or lessons. It’s satisfying to witness boundaries being blurred, but stark differences remain. There are still some people launching drone strikes and others being targeted. How can we reconcile that? The film offers us threads and strands, bits and pieces, possibilities. It’s up to us to decide what to create with them.

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