“Neptune Frost” – the mesmerizing Afrofuturist musical idea of multi-hyphenated poet-rapper-writer-musician Saul Williams and his wife, Rwandan artist and cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman – opens with a cacophony of colors and sounds, both digitized and natural. An electronic hum complements the singing bowls as a face turns towards the camera, wearing a mass of colorful threads twisted into a fantastical headpiece, technology repurposed into adornment, contrasted with crisp neon makeup lines.
Set in Burundi, the sounds and sights of “Neptune Frost” are arresting, but beyond its aesthetics, it’s a film underpinned by a dense and groundbreaking mythology. In addition to co-directing, Williams wrote the screenplay and composed the music, and Uzeyman serves as cinematographer.
A person is born, a person dies. Tekno, a coltan miner, holds aloft a piece of precious ore, carried away by his presence, and is blasted by a foreman, ordering him to get back to work. Tekno dies in the arms of his brother Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse, aka Kaya Free), who drags his body from the mine to the rhythmic chant of drummers scattered across the jagged, rocky landscape. Receiving a message to hack the motherboard, Matalusa launches into another dimension, singing to himself and lamenting the death of his brother.
In a side story, Neptune (Elvis Ngabo) transforms a different personal trauma into transformation, appearing in a new body (Cheryl Isheja), in a red dress on a green hill. During their journey, they encounter a mysterious and possibly nefarious man named Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba) at a restaurant before heading to the dimension where they will collide with Matalusa and other techno-utopians.
When the rest of the coltan miners arrive – summoned by dreams – the group begins to band together around a techno-revolutionary ideology to overthrow the powers that be. Matalusa Kingdom, or Martyr Loser Kingdom (a reference to Williams’ 2016 album “Martyr Loser King”), becomes a collective of hackers with a work nourished by dreams and the subconscious, spirituality, nature, song and indigenous culture.
Williams and Uzeyman’s radical vision of the future is rooted in the tactility and sensuality of the real, natural world. It comes from real pain, from war, from exploitation – and seeks to apply ancient wisdom to today’s age of technology. This philosophy extends to the film’s aesthetic, with practical cinematic techniques used to achieve its futuristic vision.
Using bits of wire and motherboards, costume designer Cedric Mizero and hair/makeup creative director Tanya Melendez create a beautiful, inventive, and imaginative look for warriors. Uzeyman’s heady, hallucinatory images are heightened by slow motion, crossfades, and even running the film in reverse. In the back half, Williams and Uzeyman use computer-generated images, text, and other digital cinematic manipulations. But the totally singular and imaginative world they build is recognizable, diverted from the techno-ephemeral that litters the planet.
It’s easy to get swept away by the enchanting and immersive sights, sounds and songs of “Neptune Frost”, only to ride the waves of vibrations that pulsate and radiate from the heart of the film. While he might be a little inscrutable on the first watch, an overriding sentiment comes through loud and clear – in the form of a middle finger raised straight at the camera. It is a film that rejects capitalism, gender binary, heteronormativity, extractive exploitation and any social construction that has been used in the service of oppression.
Instead, the characters in “Neptune Frost” embrace technology as a tool of liberation, saying that technology is a reflection of those who build it and that there is potential to build something new. “The drum is nothing without the drummer”, says Memory (Eliane Umuhire), “it’s time to beat the code.” It is a battle cry that is both a galvanizing call to action, a message of hope and a reminder that a different world is possible.
(In Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English with English subtitles)
Operating time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts June 10 Laemmle NoHo 7, Laemmle Monica Film Center and Virtual Cinemas