The unconventional sci-fi musical “Neptune Frost” (in theaters), from co-directors and partners Saul Williams, a seasoned New York musician and actor, and Anisia Uzeyman, a Rwandan actress and filmmaker; questions the notion of technological progress from the point of view of those who live in the places exploited to achieve it.
Set in the mountains of the African nation of Burundi, their Afrofuturistic vision, which premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, follows a former miner and an intersex hacker as they lead an uprising against oppressive forces. The realm they inhabit is one where reality and a digital interface, imbued with magical realism, intersect tactilely.
Speaking via video call from their home in Los Angeles, the duo explained some of the key concepts behind their one-of-a-kind film. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“Neptune Frost” was originally slated for the stage until the producers persuaded you to turn the concept into a movie. How has the medium of cinema reshaped the project?
SAUL WILLIAMS: It allowed us to imagine what it would be like to shoot on location. We had written the story to be set in Burundi but we knew we couldn’t shoot there because of the political unrest. But in the neighboring country of Rwanda, where Anisia is from, the doors were open. We arrived there in 2016 to shoot a sizzle reel and discovered a slew of Burundian refugees in Kigali who were students, artists and activists. We were excited to show a place and faces that people haven’t really seen on screen.
ANISIA UZEYMAN: We wanted to share the existing beauty of Rwanda that I was intimate with, as well as the language. We have an ancestral tradition of poetry.
WILLIAMS: After writing the script, working with these poets and writers from Rwanda and Burundi to translate the text into Kinyarwanda and Kirundi was an extraordinary experience. The film allowed us to share much more than the scene would have done.
In creating this complex narrative, were you inspired by specific historical events relevant to Burundi or broader ideas about neocolonialism in Africa?
WILLIAMS: When we started conceptualizing the project in 2011, the Arab Spring, Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks were underway. On the continent, American evangelists have arrived in countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, offering money to pass anti-LGBT laws. We were also learning about e-waste camps [in Africa], places where our technology will die, village-sized camps with stacks of motherboards, keyboards and towers. We learned of their close connection to the mining industry and the irony that digital technology is so deeply rooted in analog mining.
This is related to what has been happening on this continent for centuries. We wake up every morning and say, “I can’t start my day without my coffee”, not knowing where that coffee comes from, where the rubber in your tires comes from, where the stuff that makes your computer. . The spirit of protest in the film comes from what was happening while we were writing it. We wanted to incorporate these things and connect the dots between these disparate ideas and show how they were all part of the same timeline.
Since the music here represents an integral narrative aspect, can you explain the thought process behind its composition?
WILLIAMS: The music came first. I grew up with musicals and one of the goals was to make one that matched the musical interests that were part of my exploration as an artist. I was interested in polyrhythm because we were linking drum rhythms to coding as the drums themselves were used for wireless communication. We were playing with the idea of drum coding in terms of computer programming, and the exploration of what is beyond the binary in the question of genre.
UZEYMAN: The music was also a great way to communicate with the actors who are all singers and musicians. They have this very privileged relationship to rhythm. It was a way to work on their own understanding of the characters they were playing and how their voices evolve over the story.
There is a striking visual quality to the costumes and set designs that are both supernatural and recognizable, how were they designed?
UZEYMAN: We met Cédric Mizero, the young designer behind these costumes and sets, in 2016 in Rwanda. After hearing the story we wanted to tell, he came back the next morning with sandals made from motherboards. Cédric’s work also inspired the writing of the film because he was already working with people in the village to recycle and transform materials considered waste into art installations and zero waste mode.
WILLIAMS: For example, making backpacks out of water canisters or using African wooden sculptures as guns that we used in the film.
How does Afrofuturist art, which weaves folklore and culture into futuristic tropes, allow you to approach today’s issues from a decolonized perspective?
WILLIAMS: There is something experienced and understood about the fluidity of things in Indigenous cultures that transcends Western projection. These things have been part of reality and narrative in Africa and elsewhere for a long time, but the rigidity of Western lack of imagination has closed the doors to these ancient myths and mythologies. It is crucial for us not to participate in the pornography of poverty or the expectations white people have of Africa.
UZEYMAN: From the perspective of artists on the continent, what’s important is the ability to tell any story we want to tell, not the story you expect us to tell or the story you’re willing to fund. We want to tell all the stories from our point of view – science fiction or historical dramas – freed from Western framing.