By Elias Savada.
A vibrant celebration of homegrown culture set against an African dreamscape tinged with Marxist underpinnings.”
Thou Shalt Not Exploit Technology might be one of the newer commandments to be considered after inputting this new, unconventional avantgarde piece, a self-proclaimed cyberpunk musical filmed in Burundi. It played at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and is now arriving in U.S. arthouse cinemas courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Like eating cold ice cream, your brain might freeze from the intensity of Neptune Frost, one of the most unusual films I’ve ever seen. You may not understand why your head is pounding from the sensations conveyed by the Afrofuturist visions crafted by multidisciplinary artist Saul Williams, directing in collaboration with Rwandan-born artist, playwright, and filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman, but there’s a powerful, satisfying memory that will remain after your brain has thawed. The flavor may not be your preference, but the sweet-tasting comfort will last, at least through a few more of the outlandish journeys offered throughout this curious film.
According to Williams, this project started back in 2013 as a graphic novel and a musical – he’s credited with the “original story written and composed by” as well as the music. It evolved into a much larger piece called the MartyrLoserKing (also the name of his sixth album, as well as an obvious shout out to the legacy of the other MLK) project, composed of three albums, a graphic novel, and this film. Uzeyman watchful eye created the film’s distinctive look.
The film is most definitely an artistic triumph, a low-budget achievement in organic techno-makeup and wardrobe design, with cast-off computer doo-dads and discarded parts attached here and there, alongside bright cosmetics and related jewelry. This makes for some interesting dialogue, such as “The motherboard is bleeding.”
Newcomers Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo “Bobo” share the shape-shifting intersex role of Neptune, with Bertrand Ninteretse “Kaya Free” taking the other central character of Matalusa, who has escaped the tyranny of mining coltan, a metallic ore used in all manner of electronics and mined for colonial profit in numerous African countries. He forms an anti-authority computer hacker collective. The film is further described as “set between states of being – past and present, dream and waking life, colonized and free, male and female, memory and prescience.”
“Unanimous Goldmine” is now the catchphrase for hello among the rebels. It plays into the author’s mythology throughout his broader work (or so I’m told – not being familiar with his other pieces). There’s a political agenda afoot, presented in an invigorating bare-budget framework that reminded me of the mind-bending Max Headroom, one of my favorite mid-1980s television characters, with its eponymous centerpiece being a dystopian computer-generated tv commentator.
This project wouldn’t be shit without the music. That’s Williams talking. It’s why Lin-Manuel Miranda and Fela! Producer Stephen Hendel are among of the film’s dozen+ executive producers. While there are some major production numbers, with musicians intermingled with the cast, the songs are mostly poetry heightened by tonal pitches, with a good sampling of choreography and absorbing camerawork. Sample lyrics: “Picture a dream and dare to live it. Open your soul and dare to give it.” One song, written by Kaya Free and Regan Farquhar and performed by Free is called Fucking Mr. Google. As a whole, this is more than a filmed performance piece, which is where Uzeyman’s involvement is crucial, as the film’s director of photography as well. She made her first film, Dreamstates, with iPhones and has made numerous musical videos. She’s upped her cinematic game considerably.
The audience for Neptune Frost may not accept this artistic triumph for it is edgy, confrontational narrative— and I probably would have enjoyed (and understood) it better if I had a familiarity of Williams’ global view. Not very far into this 105-minute film, one of the central characters seemingly breaks the film’s fourth wall and wonders to the viewer “Maybe you’re asking yourself WTF is this?” Yes, indeed. Maybe some of the dialogue (in Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French, and English) gets skewered in translation. The English subtitles sadly focuses your attention to the lower part of the screen, but try to divert your view and go with the cosmic flow as the story breaks through its untried proscenium.
Neptune Frost is a vibrant celebration of homegrown culture set against an African dreamscape tinged with Marxist underpinnings.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).