Network of Ideas
By Kambole Campbell
Dir. Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, Rwanda/U.S., Kino Lorber
Vividly imagining a new future for the African diaspora, Neptune Frost, a visual expansion of Saul Williams’s ongoing multimedia project and album Martyr Loser King, is a sprawling Afro-centric science fiction that at once uplifts the oppressed and dresses down neocolonialism and binary thinking. Co-directed by fellow multi-hyphenate artist Anisia Uzeyman, the film follows Neptune, an intersex hacker (played first by Elvis Ngabo and then Cheryl Isheja for the rest of the film), who is led to the hacker's paradise of Digitaria via mysterious dreams. In this dreamscape, she also connects with Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), a miner who eventually joins her in Digitaria after his friend Tekno (aptly named for the film's chosen subject) is killed. Crucially, Matalusa—the protagonist of Williams’s album, but a deuteragonist here—mines coltan, a key resource in the construction of a vast amount of electronics.
Engaging in discourses around the devastation of capitalism and colonialism within the form of a cyberspace-musical, Williams and Uzeyman set their film in the resource-cursed neighboring countries Rwanda and Burundi. Williams recontextualizes the songs from the album, now translated by its new performers into Kinyarwanda and Kirundi in an acute, disquieting confrontation about the origins of Western capital. Beginning with Neptune’s direct gaze to the camera as the film’s electronic overture hums, Williams and Uzeyman’s film provocatively implicates the viewer in the systems it wishes to dismantle. It’s important to note that it’s not all accusatory in tone, the film is just as focused on the ecstasy of Matalusa and Neptune’s newfound liberation; its choreography and song is as often as celebratory of existence outside of capitalism and other oppressive structures (Neptune flees an abusive church at the film’s opening).
In her opening narration, she proclaims that she was born dead—and, as Neptune, born again with a newfound technopathic connection and a strange link to the Burundian miner Matalusa. “My life was never quite mine,” Neptune emphasizes before the film cuts to Matalusa and his crew. Neptune Frost is heavy on such wordplay—Williams is a lyricist after all—but while some of the puns are a little silly, the insistence on even the slightest correspondence adds to its sense of vast spiritual, digital interconnectivity, with music as a unifying element, the beat of a drum rallying suffering miners and later, sounding a call to revolution.
The film’s flitting back and forth between multiple perspectives can be overwhelming as scattered parties all converge upon the imagined technological paradise of Digitaria. It’s impressively slippery in all respects, hard to pin down beyond its Afro-centric science fiction and Afrofuturist leanings. But its bold defiance of narrative convention in favor of symbolism, while invigorating, can just as often make it bewildering. For the most part, it’s a film to feel your way through, though that mystique gets lost near its end as characters break down exactly what’s happening, the meaning laid out bluntly, like a concession being made to anyone struggling to keep up. Yet the film maintains a sense of humor about its opacity, at one point lamp-shading its strangeness by Neptune asking, “WTF is this? A poet’s idea of a dream?”
The barrage of data and discourse gives Neptune Frost an urgent, contemporary feel, an information overload not entirely unlike the mundane act of logging on. It’s far less miserable than say, scrolling through Twitter, however, as it instead steps into a world where discourse is governed by the Rwandans and Burundians, whose resources have been pillaged to build the digital spaces in which we usually reside.
Though Williams and Uzeyman’s scripting is challenging to follow, their visual and musical storytelling speaks volumes. Dreams of reclamation of technology are clearly reflected in the film’s wild costume design, combining the wiry looks of African recycled art with the speculation and technoculture of Afrofuturism. Jackets are compiled from keyboards and old circuits, hats and clerical clothing from repurposed cables, and what looks like a Nintendo Power Glove is used by one character as a means to psychically connect with the others. The costuming is stunning, as well as reverent toward uniquely African style.
This act of collage is also present in Williams’s songs, a combination of traditional instrumentation with distorted electronic tones and industrial sounds. In depicting the emotional realities of Neptune Frost’s characters, the musical compositions evince a fascinating union between modern networks and the more fundamental kind of communication in the form of the drum, the intent already clear before any of its singers spit out impassioned, direct lyrics. The mission statement of the film reveals itself in such moments. In one song Matalusa succinctly shows how the allure of resource richness and production of electronics has ruined the lives and land of his companions: "mountains destroyed! // iPhone on!” In a subsequent track, the inhabitants of Digitaria sing in celebration of Neptune, "Words are sometimes prisons from where you look,” when discussing binary, antiquated, and yet commonplace views on gender.
Uzeyman’s lensing of the film contrasts its hilly, pastoral setting with vivid and unearthly, hallucinatory imagery, swapping out natural light for neon glow when Neptune and Matalusa slip into their shared dreamscape. The line blurs the closer they (and we) get to Digitaria, though, fascinatingly, it’s not as visually outlandish as one might expect from the connotations of the term “Afrofuturist,” a couple of digitally rendered floating rocks aside.
In the merging of spirituality and technoculture, Williams and Uzeyman find some fascinating contradictions: to the citizens of Digitaria, technology is part of a root cause of their oppression but also a resource through which to find solidarity and organization. The film’s spirituality lifts from traditional African stories about the stars and connection to the natural world, but congregation is found through digital interfacing. One character reflects on being born from binary stars but rejects gender binaries on their journey of self-discovery. Another wonders if they’re really capable of destroying anything, even the colonialist systems that brought them low; all they can do is use recycled and reclaimed technology to try and make something better, something free from essentialist ideals.
The film’s ideas on the lingering effects of colonialism are tied to the racist, essentialist belief that one race had a better understanding of how to use the land than the people who lived there —and this connects to the filmmakers’ ideas about the rigid and phrenological belief in the body’s unchangeability, another colonized space. Businesses monopolize African resources as police monopolize violence to suppress dissent, and fundamentalists control or attempt to control self-expression and gender identity. To Neptune Frost, these are all part of the same web, interconnected by neocolonial interests.
In considering Neptune Frost’s speculative imaginings. the mind is also drawn to Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place. Where that film, directed by John Coney, is steeped in urbanite anxiety and sees the future on a faraway planet (and the chance for African Americans to colonize their own uninhabited space), Neptune Frost dreams instead of African reclamation. In one way or another, both are about the intergenerational wound left on those whose land has been stolen away. Much of contemporary Afrofuturism—in the popular consciousness at least—is conceptualized by African American artists, whether that’s Janelle Monáe or Sun Ra or the more commercial Black Panther and its forthcoming sequel. Neptune Frost feels like a peek into another world, one where African voices are held aloft over the noise of Western discourse and given equal weight. With its intentional clashing of music and information overload, Neptune Frost is messy and often feels held together with repurposed wire, but its idiosyncrasies and impassioned confrontation more than make up for the moments when its big ideas get tangled in its own web.