Co-directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman make their film debuts with this futuristic, gender-bending, musical call to freedom.
Within the first 20 minutes of Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s ‘Neptune Frost’, we’re met with a harrowing story that so many on the continent are familiar with. The exploitation and disregard for Black bodies is an age-old tale, however, the first sighting of the film’s fantastically futuristic technology is your first warning that you have no idea what you’re about to get yourself into.
‘Neptune Frost’ is a sci-fi musical film set in Burundi, East Africa. The tale centers around two leading characters: Neptune – played first by Elvis Ngabo as Neptune’s male manifestation, and later, Cheryl Isheja as female – an “intersex runaway”, and Matalusa (Kaya Free), who is introduced to the audience while witnessing the death of his brother.
Matalusa, his brother, and hundreds and thousands of other Black laborers are enslaved in an open-pit mine, digging up coltan – a mineral used to power cellphones. The shocking scene of inhumanity sparks the film’s motif centering around political violence, labor exploitation, and the desire to break free from the chains those in power have confined us to since the beginning of time. Matalusa runs away into the darkness and thus the psychedelic, curious nature of the night unravels.
Through his dreams, Matalusa is recruited by an army of rebel hackers attempting to empower their community into demanding and owning their own freedom to exist. At the same time, Neptune experiences their transition and immediately falls into the dangers that come with womanhood. After fleeing an attempt of sexual assault, Neptune and Matalusa are absorbed into the dreamscape world.
The film is a visual and sonic masterpiece. Even in moments where things are abstract and it’s not clear what’s going on, the rich, full-bodied colors and scenes curated by Uzeyman will keep eyes glued to the screen.
‘Neptune Frost’ is but one part of the directing duos multimedia project – MartynLoserKing. The project consists of a graphic novel, three albums, and a musical film.
Williams is an American actor, musician, and poet while co-director and life partner Uzeyman is an actress and playwright of Rwandan origin. What you see, hear, and feel throughout the film speaks strongly to how in tune and in harmony the couple’s professional and personal connections are – down to the manner in which they regularly complete the other’s thoughts throughout our conversation. Together the two, and their local team of cast and crew, created a fantastical community of resilient, genderfluid, color enthusiast hackers who find each other through a love of technology and a desire to capsize the greedy, capital-driven authority, executing the very people who they rely so heavily upon.
We spoke with Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman about their dedication to making this a film by and for Africans, synergistic alignments, and letting your wildest dreams inspire your work.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Photo by Jason Mendez/Getty Images
The film was set in Burundi, but you filmed in Rwanda. Anisia, what was it like to not only be home but to be able to create something that is heavily drenched in the importance of community in your own motherland?
Anisia Uzeyman: It was emotional. If it wasn't for this particular story, if it wasn't for Saul, I would not have been able to do that over there. It's really because of the opportunity to share my intimate perception of Rwanda, through that specific lens and story, with the artists, and to really be able to enter that zone with people that are bringing their talent. I found solace and gratitude in the possibility of sharing this world with the world, with others. It is something very particular. It's an experience that I will not forget. It is also, for me, the first time that I allowed myself to see my home as a place of fiction. And that is a place of intimacy, of privacy. And it is the first time that I felt that I was capable and allowed myself to be there, to tell a story.
A lot of your cast and crew were refugees themselves, fleeing war-torn Burundi. Can you talk to me about the understanding that you two were empowering these people at a time when they really needed it by giving them the space to portray these powerful characters?
AU: The realization came as this film came together. It was very crazy. The story taking place in Burundi was conceptualized in, what, 2011?
Saul Williams: Yeah, so before the political unrest.
AU: And, boom. In 2015, Burundi goes into very violent political unrest.
SW: We arrive in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) to begin casting the sizzle reel in 2016, and you realize that the city has this new energy, greatly influenced by the Burundian refugees – the artists, activists, and students that are there, who are intermingled in the local Rwandan scene. So, we’re going to see performances, open mics, what have you, and there's lots of Rwandan and Burundian talent that's being welcomed to the stage and to the city.
AU: Welcomed, and also used as a way to hustle and survive in those conditions. People mostly fled (Burundi) with nothing, and Rwanda welcomed around 250,000 refugees. There was a village, a little bit outside of Kigali, that the government instilled for those refugees, but the young artists, and activists, hustled to get to Kigali, where they would live together, and find ways of surviving in a new place. They were very, very vibrant and active and brought their own energy into the already very vibrant scene in Kigali. A lot of their stories made it into the final script.
As Africans, language is so fluid and everyone borrows words and phrases from each other. Saul, as an English and French speaker, what was your experience like weaving so many dialects and cultures into one finished project?
SW: As someone that's traveled, the thing that I enjoy when I'm outside of the US is how people are multilingual. And on the continent, in a place like Rwanda, for example, people are speaking five languages readily. And like you said, borrowing expressions from the one that works best for this idea.
On the first hand, it's something that I've always been very inspired by, so it became crucial that the film reflect that. I remember going to karaoke in Kigali and hearing people perform in so many languages. "This is a Mexican song I'm going to sing." "This is in Lingala from the Congo." "This is..." So many languages, it's just been like, "What the fuck?" Just extraordinary. So it was just important that the film reflects that fluidity, and also because thematically in the film what we are looking at in terms of fluidity, in relation to gender, in relation to language, in relationship to rhythm, in relationship to expression, is also a part of the technological coding that we are addressing in the film.
AU: I think it was a very, very, important tool for actors to be able to speak in their language. Often in films, you fly in somebody that is a name and that takes an accent and that makes you believe that they are from the place where they're talking from. And I think this film has the quality of sincerity. I think that's how the performances, to my sense, are so convincing and beautiful and touching. It's that people are talking in their language, in their slang, in their ways of feeling and processing. And so it was a real choice. For me, it's also a childhood dream. I would've loved to have a film like this when I was a kid, where I could hear and see people singing and breathing in languages that I grew up with.
The color in this film is impeccable. Anisia, what was your experience being in charge of setting the tone, emotion, and ambiance of each scene?
AU: I was lucky to be able to witness the process from the very early stage, which started with music, which started with Saul composing, the sounds...
SW: The sounds of the universe.
AU: Right. I really saw all of the universes, all the worlds being built from the ground, and sonically. And I think that the sound informs a lot about what mood, what kind of movement, what kind of emotions. From there, I was interested [in the color] almost acting like a protagonist, to communicate what the actor had to go through, to enhance the emotion, to dance with it, to accentuate it. And colors are a very persuasive way to convey emotions. Also, it was a desire to explore what it is to film Black skin. What it is to capture the luminescence. And how the emotions come and move. The story was also composed of 60% of night scenes because nights are very important in that world – a lot of things happen at night. A lot of conversations, poetry, and music happen at night [in the film] and the night was a very magical and also fictional possibility. You can then create really what is the ambiance, what are the texture? What is...?
SW: The color of the moon.
AU: The color of the moon? The night is like a blank canvas, so we built a color palette that questioned: How do you convey a dream? What is that otherworldly color? What is the color of the air, even, that you breathe? There are some rules in color-complementary, et cetera, that I was like, "Maybe we can do it differently. Maybe if you approach it from the other side, maybe you can create something that is new."
The technology in the film is otherworldly – down to the sounds coming out of the instruments. Did you have any particular inspiration or was it just your wildest dreams?
SW: First of all, it was also a childhood dream of mine to have a musical like this. Since I was a kid, I dreamt of having a musical that reflects the musical language that I love and appreciate in electronic music – in the sampling of ideas, places, and finding their way into music. So all those different sonic palettes were brought in to compliment the idea of being able to dream, something that was disconnected from what we hear on a regular basis, but also connected, right? There was a lot of inspiration from varied sources, and there's also that sense of wanting to create something – trying to put your finger on something that you haven't really heard before, but that you're yearning to hear.
AU: I remember being very inspired by the work of the new wave of artists, and especially visual artists, from the continent. South Africa is out there, very, very impressive and inspiring. And we dove, into all that – the new wave of expression on the continent.
SW: From photographers to fashion designers, to Amapiano, and Afrobeats. And innovation is the other exciting thing. This project was also born out of our discovery of the phenomenon of e-waste camps. We had never considered where our tech goes to die, and that there were village-sized camps of motherboards, and all these things to scavenge out the wire, the copper. Learning how heavily dependent modern technology is on the resources that are mined in places next to those e-waste camps. But then also learning that things were being created out of that e-waste. Prosthetic arms, 3D printing machines. And so we saw the film as a way of platforming that as well, and so envisioning this village made of recycled computer parts was inspired by what we were already witnessing, in a sense, in the sort of innovative reality of what's happening on the continent.
The film is so interesting in that both the music and dialogue are read as poetry. Did you ever struggle to communicate your ideas and expectations to your team?
SW: The role of poetry in Rwandan and Burundian culture is super-rich, important, and extremely traditional. It's a country that already circulates around poetry, and it was another dream to have the dialogue exist in that language. May have been a stretch for someone in the US, but presenting the dialogue to our cast and crew, they immediately got it and were like, "Yeah."
AU: To the country, it's like music – it travels without papers. There is a lot in the film that may reflect the way people talk to each other. And it seemed really far out, but I think one of the things that I love in this film is how we show conversation. In a film, you show the action, you have dialogue to put the action in and here the action is conversation. What do we say to each other? How do we talk to each other? And Saul was telling me that he even, when he's writing poetry, sometimes he has discussion with a friend or with few friends, and he's like, "How...?"
SW: How do I incorporate how wonderful that conversation was into this writing? Because some of the most poetic and interesting language comes from dialogue itself.
AU: There is also something very ancestral to that. You go under the tree, and you just discuss things, and you'll notice the poetry, the circulations of idea, the jokes. All of that has a rhythm that you could translate through poetry.
It’s also interesting in that it discusses gender expression and sexuality, and destroys the binary belief system that a lot of Africans have chained themselves to. What are you hoping to communicate to young Africans and Black people? Was releasing the film during Pride Month intentional?
SW: Releasing the film during Pride Month is one of the synergistic alignments that we've been referencing with the film. It makes every sense that the film is coming out here at the beginning of Pride Month. In terms of the fluidity of gender, as it's expressed in the film, it's really just an act of remembering that rigidity was imposed upon us through colonialism and Imperial forces. We had a beautiful experience when we were casting the person who would play the old nun in the film. And we didn't end up going with the woman I'm about to mention. But we were talking to the mother of Kaya to audition or see if she'd be interested in playing this role. And Kaya's mother, Kaya who plays Matalusa, is very religious. And so she had the question of...
AU: "What is this story about?"
SW: So we tell the story of this character assigned male at birth, the transformation, and all of this. And she goes, "Oh, that old story, that's a Burundian folk tale. Kaya, don't you remember, we've always told this story. This is an old story." And it was that. And it's always been that sense of connectivity between what we innately understand, versus what has been imposed on us. And like I said, where that rigidity comes from.
The desire to break the binary, to move beyond it, to reflect the spectrum of consciousness as we know and experience it on this planet. The person who ended up playing the role of the nun is a beloved, iconic poet and singer of Rwanda named Cécile Kayirebwa, who blessed us with her presence, making her screen debut at the age of 75. And in her position as an artist, as a figure, and as someone that is loved so much in Rwanda, and Burundi, she also understood very deeply what that fluidity was about. And I think that she felt the importance of those words and that connection is made by her. There’s a special moment in the story where the nun says, "I didn't know someone with your mother's name, but I remember them having a boy."
It's kind of like the passing of a baton, for all of the young and extraordinary talents that we have in the film who found sanctuary in our production site because we housed and worked with a lot of artists. And artists don't always have the easiest existence, and there's a spectrum of expression, and how our parents and the people around us respond to it and all that. But the set was really a safe space in those regards, and to have someone from the elder generation come and say to the youth, "What you all are doing is beautiful. And this is your moment", was a beautiful thing.
Neptune Frost is available in cinemas from June 3rd, and on streaming platforms on June 5. Check out the trailer here.
NEPTUNE FROST (2021) - Sci-Fi, Musical - HD Trailer - English Subtitleswww.youtube.com
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