Photo still via Youtube.

A Sci-Fi Film About an Otherworldly Village Made of Old Computer Parts In Burundi By Saul Williams Is In The Works

We catch up with the artist, poet and filmmaker to get the scoop on his film in development, 'Neptune Frost.'

MartyrLoserKing is Saul Williams' overarching multimedia project that he began 5 years ago, consisting of a graphic novel, three albums and a musical.

The musical arm of the project—Neptune Frost—has been in development, where Williams shot the trailer in Rwanda and launched a Kickstarter to raise funds to begin production of the full-length film, which he hopes to begin in 2019.

Neptune Frost is set in a Burundian village made of recycled computer parts. This village is also home to what the synopsis calls, "the world's most subversive hacking collective." The sci-fi film tells the love story between an intersex runaway and a coltan miner.

The plot continues:

While Western intelligence looks to the usual suspects, a Dogon avatar whispers through a dream to reveal the coded mysteries of Sirius and the stars to an escaped coltan miner and an intersex runaway seeking refuge from a binary norm, revealing her divine circuitry as the eye of the storm. When their connection sparks the MartyrLoserKing is born.

MartyrLoserKing, the elusive African hacker whose team of "losers" and outcasts ignite the imagination of the world's most "connected" generation through deep space, deep web penetration. A virtual hero for a world caught in perpetual analogue exploitation. Neptune Frost is the MartyrLoserKing.

Watch the trailer below.

Just from watching the trailer alone, Williams is abstractly turning the impact of the world's consumption of the continent's precious minerals on its head, and we had to learn more.

Read our conversation where we touch on what inspired this project, shooting the trailer in Rwanda and more, below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: My first question touches on the setting of the film and the shooting location. Why did you want to head to Rwanda?

Saul Williams: Part of it has to do with the fact that people in the West know very little about that side of the world or even that side of the continent. For example, as African Americans, oftentimes our focus is so much heavily on West Africa. I was particularly interested in that region, one, because I was in the process of learning a lot about it. I was learning a lot about what was happening with a lot of the precious minerals and resources and also learning about the history of the region. I found it extremely interesting primarily because there's so many ways in which you connect how people move through history in one culture to another.

I chose Burundi because I know that it's relatively unknown for Western students, let's say. Americans are famous for not having a great sense of geography. It's a rich and beautiful history, and it's also paralleled to the history of Rwanda. Rwanda, like Haiti, [are] countries when you say their name, you have an immediate, "Oh, I heard about that place," but you associate it with tragedy. You associate it with some sort of natural or unnatural disaster. Part of the goal of this project is to transcend how we relate to these places so that the first thing we think of is not the horror and the sense of history, but we're able to apply our imagination and to project that into the future, because that's often of interest to the people from those places as well.

My family is from Haiti. When I say Haiti to anybody, they go, "Oh, how is it over there? Oh my god, the earthquake," but they don't realize how beautiful the island is. They don't realize that of all the islands that Columbus "discovered," there's a reason why he chose to live on that island, why he asked, of all the places, could I just live here, because it's a paradise.

Photo courtesy of Saul Williams.

The real reason though for basing it in Burundi was if I place it in a place that you were familiar with, like if I said it takes place in the Congo, you think that I'm doing some investigative journalism, exposé of what's happening in coltan mines. If I say it's in Rwanda, you go, "Oh, okay, the genocide." But if I say Burundi, your imagination is free because you don't really have too much associated with that place. It has to do with that. It also has to do with the plain fact that I'm from a place called Newburgh, New York. Newburgh is about an hour outside of New York City. Nobody's every really heard of it, but Newburgh for the past 40 years has had the highest murder rate, the highest crime rate, the highest drug trafficking rate in New York state. It's the most violent place in New York, but no one's ever heard of it. I'm interested in those sort of places that are unheard of but are actually the key to understanding something. That was that. I chose Burundi to free the imagination.

Of course, we can't shoot there because of the political upheaval [in Burundi]. Rwanda, of course, is an interesting place right now in that it's the fastest growing economy on the continent. It's the country in the world with the highest representation of women in the government. It's the third greenest country in the world. There's a bunch of shit about Rwanda that also people don't know beyond the trajectory of tragedy.

Also, when people think about Rwanda, they think about their president who is a complex leader in a lot of ways.

It's complex. Yeah, it's complex.

In terms of the dissent in that country is discouraged, and the trailer pokes at that in a lot of ways. How were you able to reconcile that while shooting it there?

How were we able to circumvent that? One, there's no place we could go to escape the craziness of what many countries and governments are invested and involved in. I we shot anything in the States, in Canada, anywhere we'd go, we'd be uncovering or unveiling something related to what's actually happening in the place. I think the way that it works for us is primarily because it's normal for the press to be interested in the fact that yes, we're talking about the coltan and all this sort of stuff, but our story is supernatural. It's a science fiction story, you know what I'm saying? It's really about a group of people that live in a village made of old computer parts that when this one person walks into the village, the entire village turns on and it becomes this supercomputer, which is then the most connected place on the planet and unexpected because it's in a place where people would automatically assume there's no way technology like that could exist.

It's been my job to do all the research to connect all of the realistic and historical referencing that points to the real shit that's going down, but simultaneously I'm not doing a documentary. I'm not even staying close to reality as we practice it. I think that's how we've been able to circumvent any issues thus far. If you think that we are not aware of all that could happen —of course, we move strategically. We give as much information as is needed. It's a game. When Fela Kuti said that music is the weapon of the future, we're aware of what we're building.

Photo courtesy of Saul Williams.

In terms of the folks we see in the trailer, are you planning on working with them again when you're able to go back to shoot the full film?

Definitely. We spent about three months scouting and casting in Rwanda. We ended up meeting some amazing talent. It's another thing that I've had to dodge not through media but definitely with people on Twitter and stuff like that where, "Oh, it's such good that you're doing work in Africa." They want to treat it like we found kids on the street or something, you know what I'm saying?

Actually, we found very well-trained artists and performance artists who are fucking amazing who were already on their path, you know what I'm saying? Some of them have albums. Some of them have already been in films. Many of them do theater. It's just a lot of talent, a lot of talent. Because of the fact that at the time of our being there, there was already over 300,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, [so] we ended up meeting a lot of Burundian talent as well. We were just in the right place at the right time to meet a lot of great talent. We have a lot more casting to do, so there's other people that we plan to include. But as far as the people that we worked with, yes.

The other side of that is that the real reason that I'm coming to people has everything to do with them, because when I go to producers and people with money who want to invest, their main thing in securing their investment is, "What type of A-list talent do you have, and how can you ensure me that it's going to be, one, in English." Those are the two things I'm not interested in. I'm trying to make a film that actually reflects my experience. My experience when I travel abroad is, one, centered around the fact that oftentimes I'm sitting at tables with people, African people oftentimes, who are speaking four or five different languages within one conversation, right?

I've experienced that, too.

I want to film that reflects that. It just seems like the most obvious thing to be like, "Holy shit, this is amazing." Why not have a film that reflects that? I'm super interested in that. I'm super interested in their faces. I get so mad when I step into a sci-fi film and the first face is see is fucking Matt Damon. How am I supposed to release my imagination if it's this motherfucker I see every fucking day? I want my imagination to be able to travel, so I think fresh faces, fresh voices, all of those things. Then as a poet, which is what nobody agrees with me on, but at as a poet, I love text on the screen. I love subtitles. I feel like people don't go far enough with subtitles. I want to see text on screen. I'm playing with language and all of these things.

Film poster via Twitter.

One thing I already noticed with the trailer is how one of the actors was trying to describe the word "hack," and then you would hear "hack" again in Kinyarwanda. The translation between the two, I thought, was interesting.

All of those things, all of those little interpretations, translations, those things are like little portals, or windows, or vortexes that allow insights into things. It's definitely been my secret of my relationship to language of how I'd learned things is by having learned more than one language. You start getting the little peephole into, "Ah, this word comes from there, and it's related to that. In this language, it belongs to this expression, but that expression doesn't exist in this language. There's no word for that in this language."

Through all of those things, you start to understand culture, and self, and identity through all of those little portals.

Over the past, I would say, two or so years, maybe a bit more than that, there's been an increased interest in sci-fi through the black lens, Afrofuturism, and that whole discourse, whether it's expressed through music, through literature, through film. I was just wondering your thoughts on how this project, not just the film but the multimedia project, adds to that discourse, especially for those who aren't super familiar but are interested in that realm.

When I was in a prison yard in the film Slam going, "I stand on a corner of the block slinging amethyst rocks," my interest then—20 years ago—was all black sci-fi, Octavia Butler, Sun Ra. I've been waiting for this public interest to arise in what we're now terming "Afrofuturism." I don't give a fuck what you call it. I think there's an American tent to that term. I think it comes from a Western gaze, where the idea of what others might called "magical realism" or what have you has existed in other cultures and in African cultures in particular for eons.

The Dogon, for example, from Mali who in their cosmology say that they come from the planet Sirius, whose numerological system is binary: zero, one, zero, one, zero, one, zero, one—and it's been that way for 2,000 years. Many indigenous cultures have been on some space age shit for ages, before the Jesuits and colonizers and came and whipped it out of them. I'm just happy to see it come back.

This film speaks to all of that. That's the inspiration point of this film was to talk about yeah, okay, we know that this stone coltan has power in a real sense, but what if somebody could touch the stone and feel its power the same way that when you touch crystal and feel its power or feel its history and feel it projecting into where it will be?

If you could touch the stone and see 10,000 years in the future and see every cell phone it will go into, every drone, every whatever, what if you could have some sort of connection to the stone before it's ever used by some sort of industrial tool to pull out those resources? What if someone could touch it and feel that?

When I think about the richness of the soil on the continent and all of the rare metals that are pulled from there, don't you think that there's something that's felt through the feet when you walk through the soil there? Don't you think it affects the music, the language, the culture? It's not just what's pulled out by the sheen. The future is as much behind, as it is ahead, as it is in the present.

It's all there. I think it's been space age for a long time.


Saul Williams has surpassed his goal on Kickstarter but is looking to raise more funds privately. With four days left in the campaign, you can still donate and learn more about the project on Kickstarter here. Look out for the graphic novel in September 2019, which will be published through First Second Books, a subsidiary of Macmillan Press.

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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