But my life was never quite mine.
Of the many disciplines for which Saul Williams excels, poet seems his label of choice. He’s an actor, rapper, songwriter, and many more titles that fit under the umbrella of “artist”, but poet gets to the heart of his soul and his power. Its built-in esotericism should also set the stage for the fact his feature film directorial debut alongside co-director/cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman won’t necessarily be the easiest to access sight unseen. This Afrofuturist, anti-colonial, science fiction uprising is the latest chapter of a multi-media project Williams began in 2013 that has already spawned three albums and a graphic novel. I assume knowing those works beforehand would help unlock the full scope of what Neptune Frost has to offer, but a synopsis proves a nice starting point too.
I say that because much of what the film’s marketing treats as undeniable details of its plot are far from it from an outsider’s perspective. It talks about the group of people that eventually collides in the hilltops of Burundi as a computer hacker collective seeking to disrupt the Rwandan establishment that has exploited their labor and resources for as long as they can remember. While that’s easy to discern in the abstract, however, it’s much more concrete in its verbiage than the visuals on-screen. What we see is less about intent than faith. Before Neptune (Cheryl Isheja) arrives to join Memory (Eliane Umuhire) and Elohel’s (Rebecca Mucyo) group, they don’t even have power. Their isolated home is simply non-functioning tech with potential. She brings it to life.
How it happens is unexplained beyond the metaphoric love connection born from the proximity of Neptune and Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse). They are destined for one another—two halves of one whole that sets a domino effect in motion fueled by shared dreams and political activism. Do we see them act? No. The impact of this union and, subsequently, the collective is involuntary. All they must do is live together and the internet does the work for them. Matalusa goes to sleep and wakes up to discover the world has anointed him a liberating force via the hacker name Martyr Loser King (the title of Williams’ first album within this expansive project). He seems as surprised as everyone else, but ownership means nothing compared to purpose.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We must first witness the journeys Neptune and Matalusa take to ultimately become the “Motherboard” and “Voice” of this movement. Its narrative thrust does well to overcome its inherent messiness, but confusion abounds nonetheless as I’m pretty sure the catalyst for this uprising bonds them in a way that turns the whole into a surreal dreamscape of overlapping personas and metaphors. That spark is the death of a coltan miner named Techno and I’ll admit that I’m not sure whose brother he was: Neptune’s or Matalusa’s. For the longest time I thought Neptune was Matalusa since the former’s intersex runaway is reborn in her twenty-third year from the birth body of a man. But it was Elvis Ngabo, not Ninteretse.
My confusion stemmed from the fact that Isheja narrates while Ngabo is on-screen. That in and of itself isn’t tough to understand, but Williams and Uzeyman splice in the coltan mine too as Techno dies in Matalusa’s arms. I don’t remember ever meeting Matalusa, though. So, I assumed he was the narrator. That he was Neptune, who then ran away to be revived by Memory after an accident. Except that was Matalusa. Or is it both? It’s difficult to wrap my head around it because it all unfolds as disparate vignettes tied together by thoughts and visions within a world that oftentimes feels like the personification of the internet itself (other characters are Innocent and Psychology) a la Pixar’s Inside Out. It’s a wildly singular work of art.
As such, I eventually decided to detach my desire for clarity from my enjoyment of the vibes. Whether or not you’re fully aware of the characterizations or familial linkages doesn’t prevent you from understanding the overarching themes in play. The contrasting battles between fantasy and reality, male and female, or laborer and dictator exist from start to finish regardless of how much the lines separating everything blur. This is a progressive look at the modern enslavement of the poor by rich oligarchs (coltan is used in cellphones and mined in African nations that see the wealth of its minerals line the pockets of billionaires rather than enhance the living conditions at home). It’s a big figurative (and at one point literal) middle finger to the likes of Google.
It’s also a call for equality by way of erasing the archaic language and conservative cultural “norms” established by a violent, patriarchal society ruled by fear rather than love. Exploiters exploit because they fear being exploited. Men abuse because they fear being seen as unmasculine. And it’s not aways evil men who find themselves with whip in-hand. It’s not always the police as depicted here with wire masks akin to fencing helmets. It’s also the well-meaning if indoctrinated souls who believe themselves to be better than they actually are. Dorcy Rugamba‘s character isn’t named Innocent because he is as much as because he thinks he is. He believes he exists outside the system only to discover his refusal to fully break free renders him hope’s destroyer.
Williams has injected so much into Neptune Frost (itself a combination of the aforementioned Neptune and Memory’s bird Frost) that its convoluted structure and opaque surfaces are unavoidable. So too is the infinite room for interpretation and pure sensory excitement. He and Uzeyman are taking the sort of experience that’s usually relegated to museum walls and bringing it to cinemas so mainstream audiences can let it wash over them. Will there be those who leave angry? Of course. Like with poetry, this lo-fi, post-war, socially conscious musical gives back only what it receives. Open your minds and let its vision of the future (and, by extension, the past) hit you with the strength of an artist asking you to look inside yourself and reject the conventions of oppression.
 Credit Chris Schwagga.
[2-3] Courtesy of Kino Lorber