It opens in an African coltan mine. Black bodies dig through the rocks for precious metals. “Metallic precious currency,” intones the narrator. “Currency of the Third and First World. Black market currency… That old black body currency.” Men with guns are asking the workers to dig. Later, a character will draw a parallel between these workers and all workers—past and present, nameless, faceless, humanless—with robots. Servant in the purest sense. “All you pay not to see.”
But in Neptune FrostYou pay to see everything even though this is not a documentary. Neptune Frost is a kaleidoscopic futuristic musical about a group of hacktivist rebels led by an intersex runaway, a mine fugitive and a silent bird soaring through the sky. Any reference to reality is purely intentional.
Conceived by writer/director/composer/rapper Saul Williams Neptune Frost 2013 first as a graphic novel and musical, then as a studio album MartyrLoserKing 2016 and now as a feature film with co-director and cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman. If that sounds like a tortuous path to the big screen, it makes perfect sense Neptune Frost. It’s a film with many layers: not all of them stack neatly, but none of them are boring.
Back to those mines: Tekno (Robert Ninteretse) has discovered coltan among the rocks – it’s the basic mineral that powers your smartphone, computer, tablet and whatever else. Tekno holds the mineral up to the sky in adoration and one of the guards beats him to death. Tekno’s brother Matalusa (Kaya Free) uses this moment to escape the mine and enter the world. There he crosses paths with Neptune (Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja) and navigates a world pushed past the ancient and futuristic, technological and organic, masculine and feminine. Binary may be the language of computers, but these reducing ones and zeros have no place here.
In fact, five languages are spoken Neptune Frost: Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English each promotes the plurality that Williams and Uzeyman clearly celebrate. The dialogue has the subtlety of a manifesto. The images are as muted as a day-glo hunter’s jacket.
And the rebel band of Neptune and Matalusa are hunted. Especially by cops who walk around with guns made out of animal antlers and wire masks and have to mutilate facial recognition programs. It’s unclear how far in the future Neptune Frost is fixed, but the designs feel like the technology has advanced so much that it’s become organic. Neptune and Matalusa’s rebels incorporate e-waste into every aspect of their clothing, makeup, and hair. Matalusa wears a vest made out of keyboard keys, Neptune has computer chip piercings, and copper wires are woven through almost all of the locomotives. When one revolutionary is injured, another simply says, “The motherboard has been damaged.” When an arm is severed, a new one is made from discarded computer parts. Everything is colourful, everything is alive.
And it’s all fascinating. Neptune Frost is direct – characters defiantly address the camera – the dialogue is outspoken and the musical interludes seem to play out forever just off-camera. What a full world, Williams and Uzeyman seem to be saying. Too bad to reduce it.
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