Written by Patrick Hao
Science fiction narratives have always been more a reflection of the present than about the future. Multi-media musician Saul Williams and Rwandan director Anisia Uzeyman use the genre in their collaboration, Neptune Frost, to make an Afro-futurist musical attempting to navigate the state of present-day Rwanda through the exploitation of First World capitalism in the age of modern technology. If that sounds like mouthful, that’s because Neptune Frost is filled with ambition and provocation but sometimes feels burdened by its capital “T” themes.
The film is set in a dystopic Rwandan village in which the population is being exploited by villagers to mine coltan for tech products. One of the miners, Malatusa (Kaya Free), rebels against the harsh treatment of the laborers and attempts a revolution. In this process, Malatusa forms a romantic bond through a cosmic internet-adjacent connection with the intersex leader of a hacker collective, Neptune (played by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja). The two actors playing Neptune are used as a physical manifestation of intersexuality and is one of the many manifestations of abstract concepts throughout the film.
The ideas in the film are rich and ripe for exploration. It makes sense that Williams and Uzeyman chose to tell the story in the form of a musical, in which the music allows its songs to bluntly state the themes. The musical scenes are didactic, but in a film that is swirling with ideas and abstraction, audiences may appreciate the directness.
Toronto International Film Festival 2021
The way the interconnectivity of the internet is portrayed in the film seems especially astute. The chants of the protesting miners start a revolution through its reach. The internet is manifested as a world of metal wires and neon hues and serves as a possible utopia for those under global oppression. The world created is akin to an Electric Zoo festival buoyed by the electric synth soundtrack. But, just as soon as the internet is a tool for freedom, it becomes a tool of oppression as well.
The real asset of the film is the retrofuturist costume and set design that grounds the horror of this modern-day dystopia. The ruins of “future tech” are everywhere in the impoverished village and are designed in a way that grounds it to the modern age. This effectively creates a tangibility to this premonition the same way George Miller did in the original Mad Max. The design also speaks to the cyclic nature of the exploitation of the resource rich continent.
There is a palpable anger and frustration felt by the filmmakers that these cycles are still occurring to this day. But this is not necessarily a cynical movie. Rather the vitality of the music and of the performers point to the pride in perseverance of African laborers. Neptune Frost, however, is somewhere in the middle of being too abstract for a mainstream audience but too narrative driven to truly relish in its abstraction. The film does not always hold together, but its complications and richness points to the complexity of the problems it chooses to highlight. It’s hard to condense thousands of years of anger towards the global exploitation of a country into a 100-minute film.
Neptune Frost Trailer
Neptune Frost was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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