Culture

Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman on Crafting the Dazzling, Hypnotic World of ‘Neptune Frost’

We spoke with multidisciplinary artist Saul Williams and Rwandan actress and playwright Anisia Uzeyman about their visionary new sci-fi film, Neptune Frost.

In Neptune Frost, the visually dazzling sci-fi musical directed by the duo of multidisciplinary artist Saul Williams and Rwandan actress and playwright Anisia Uzeyman, ideas, thematic concepts and lyricism take center stage — shifting basic concepts like plotting and narrative coherence to the back burner. 

Set in the lush hilly regions of Burundi, Neptune Frost, the debut feature length narrative by both Williams and Uzeiyman, is the latest entry in the multifaceted MartyrLoserKing project dreamed up by Williams years ago. The expansive project houses three albums and a graphic novel. Apart from sharing directing duties Williams is responsible for the screenplay and musical compositions while Uzeyman served as the director of photography.

The movie is about Neptune, an intersex hacker played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo “Bobo”, who is guided by a magnetic pull to Digitaria, an outcast enclave by rebel hackers. They are joined by Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse “Kaya Free”) a miner mourning the tragic loss of a loved one. As both outcasts journey on, they sing, dance, trade ideas and fend off interference from operatives of the state, all the while debating ideas and swapping concerns on what it means to exist on the fringes.

Neptune Frost made its debut last year at the Cannes Film Festival. Last month, it was announced that Kino Lorber acquired distribution rights to Neptune Frost and they will release the movie later in 2022. Before this new was announced, Okayplayer met up with both Williams and Uzeyman in a hotel lobby in midtown Manhattan as Neptune Frost scored its United States premiere at the New York Film Festival. We spoke about the visual design for the film, the messages of the movie, and the complicated “Afro-futurist” label. 

Neptune is an intersex hacker — played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo “Bobo” — who is guided by a magnetic pull to Digitaria, an outcast enclave by rebel hackers.

Neptune Frost is big on ideas: big tech, surveillance, neocolonialism, gender expression amongst others. How do you harvest all these components into a single narrative?

Saul Williams: In terms of subject matter, it is true that Neptune Frost does cover a lot of ground. But spend 15 minutes on Twitter just browsing your timelines, and you cover just as much ground. We were working on something that corresponds to what we really wanted to see and what we grew up sometimes wanting to see — that thing that is lacking sometimes. We respect the intelligence of the viewer and didn’t think that it was necessary to hit them over the head with the question and then the answer. In many ways, the film is an origin story of a super heroine but it also operates kind of like a fairytale and so we wanted to have that playful distance in the storytelling as well. 

Anisia Uzeyman: Stylistically we were inspired by work that pushes the boundaries of narration. Work so strong and particular and generous that it would convey emotions that we don’t see often. The way Saul wrote the script was multi-layered. It is inspired by the way technology works and how we connect dots. We went from science fiction books to films that were so particular about working with very little in terms of light and movement but making it very extraordinary. We looked a lot at Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian director and son of a poet who did beautiful work around science fiction. He mixes very beautifully the technicality of the camera with poetry. His is one of the most poetic cameras that I know, giving all the emotion through the motion. It was important for me to look at my people in a very specific and beautiful way. And also to be able to share what I see. I looked at a lot of Black cinema, African cinema, Brazilian cinema and films from the ’70s where there was a notion of freedom.

What was the organizing principle for Neptune Frost and how does it fit into the context of your larger MartyrLoserKing project?

SW: The organizing principle for me was music. Conceptually the project was always a music and a graphic novel, and it still is. The only thing that is shifting is we were initially conceiving the musical for the stage and then we decided to make a musical for film. We conceived the idea in 2010-11 when Anisia and I were in Dakar, Senegal working on the film Tey by Alain Gomis. One of the things I observed was some of the kids had their Beats by Dre headphones blasting music but would still go home after school to construct drums and participate in neighborhood dance competitions. What was of interest to me was the new technology meeting with the old tech and how both involved coding because drumbeats and rhythms are also coding. I started writing music to develop the characters, putting words to sound and trying to figure out which character is speaking and simultaneously writing the script for the graphic novel and for the screenplay at the same time.

The musical has an earthy quality that feels removed from the polish of Broadway or Hollywood musicals. How do you capture the music of this world set in East Africa and incorporate it into the story such that it feels authentic and makes narrative sense?

I grew up in New York [around] Broadway theater and at some point I was getting frustrated because I grew up also with hip-hop and I really couldn’t understand why music could advance but the sound of the Broadway musical wasn’t allowed to advance. Even with the contemporary hip-hop musicals, the sound is still very Rodgers and Hammerstein and not 808s or drumbeats or afrobeat and all this other stuff that it could be. A lot of the songs were written in different places — Haiti, La Reunion — and I made it my business to do that. We were in Rwanda in 2016 to shoot the sizzle reel and we started auditioning and meeting our cast and crew. The first group we met was the Himbaza club, Burundian drummers who play our ensemble in the film and they were immediately incorporated into the musical idea and aesthetic and a great deal of the music was written even then. Music was a very big part of the set and how the film would come together. 

AU: The first thing Saul shared with me on the project once he explained the things he was thinking about is a song called “Burundi and a lot of ideas came from that song actually. 

SW: Burundi” was the first song I wrote on the MartyrLoserKing album and it does not appear in the film except for the closing credits but without text. The text for that song however is where and how I figured who Matalusa is as a hacker and much of the story was discovered through the writing of that song.

The visual design is incredible. Anisia how did you approach the look of the film and what were your intentions?

AU: It was for me a gesture of love. That’s where I started from because I was looking for how to translate in the most direct way my feelings and emotions about Rwanda. And I think that is why Saul asked me to DOP the film because I have a specific knowledge of the place. How do you build an otherworldly universe and how do you translate a world that is not realistic or misrerabilist? One of the things I was interested in was how to film Black skin not only in ways that lift the characters and actors up but also based on how I see them. We decided on some technical choices — that in Digitaria, for instance, the moon would be in different colors. We decided to avoid white lighting altogether and work with black light. We built a lot of the gears ourselves because Rwanda does not have cinema rentals. We were lucky that ARRI lent us a camera but we visited factories to buy lead panels. I was at the iron factory looking for aluminum. All of that is how the crew came together. We were really creating something new and that is responsible for that freshness you feel in the film. The crew asked crazy questions and we would find answers to everything. Cedric Mizero, a young Rwandan genius was the set and costume designer. I loved the collaboration with him, we would talk and exchange ideas. It was a very technical set with a crew of artists and creatives building a village of recycled computer parts from zero.

Anisia is Rwandan, and Saul is American. How do both of you account for the differences in your backgrounds and cultures creatively? And how do you process the tensions that may arise from these differences?

I was thinking this morning about creating generational consciousness…

SW: We were contrasting that idea of generational consciousness and what it means, against the more familiar idea of generational wealth which is what people would normally aspire to.  

AU: I don’t know where I am going to go with this, but I guess what Saul and I have in common is the ability and desire to share beauty, to shine a light on places and ideas and people that are important to us but may be misrepresented or misunderstood or just forgotten. It is about trying to make the margins become the center like the Toni Morrison quote. We both come from histories that correspond with the theme of neocolonialism in the film. It is close to us in the sense that it is also a translation of the history of what it is to be African American so there is a shared common ground.

SW: I think that we both met each other with libraries of experience and a genuine interest and desire to read through each other’s libraries and to share that experience. There was some sort of synergistic understanding that we shared, whether it is the marginalization, the love of poetry, the misunderstanding on the outside and the beauty on the inside. In some ways I guess some of the subtext of the film corresponds with the subtext of some of our real-life dialogue.

Who is the film for? 

Everybody. This film is for everybody that owns a smart phone, that can afford one. This film is for everyone that deserves to see themselves and their beauty reflected on screen. The film also belongs to those who have questions about the future, those who have been marginalized and whose identities have been thrown into question by social dialogue and evangelists. It is also for cineastes and music lovers. Everybody really because who doesn’t like music and movies? Who doesn’t like beauty or good conversation? It is this thing where people want to place us into labels. Not once while making this project did Anisia and I talk about Afrofuturism, it never crossed our minds to discuss that. We were just talking about shit we want to see.

But that’s the label of the film now I guess, afro-futurist. Are you comfortable with that?

AU: It is a long discussion. That’s not a thing we can answer in five minutes, and we know also that people need something familiar that they can hold on to. So, this film is for the curious. It is a story that you don’t know in a place that you don’t know with actors that you don’t know featuring music that you don’t know. And in languages that you never heard of. And that for me is exciting. The film is a window into another world. It is Alice in Wonderland. That’s what it is.

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Wilfred Okiche is one of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space. He has attended critic programs and reported from film festivals in Berlin, Locarno, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Durban and Lagos.

Wilfred Okiche

Wilfred Okiche is one of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space. He has attended critic programs and reported from film festivals in Berlin, Locarno, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Durban and Lagos.

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Wilfred Okiche

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