Fire in the Sky: The Queer Newness of Neptune Frost

Cheryl Isheja as the titular Neptune.
Cheryl Isheja as the titular Neptune.

A deep dive with Neptune Frost filmmakers Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman into star systems, upcycled aesthetics and the craft behind their Afrofuturist musical.

The essence of Neptune Frost cannot be captured in just a few sentences, nor should it. But mine the seams of Letterboxd and you’ll find a wealth of words responding to the sci-fi musical’s algorithm-busting aesthetic. It’s a multidisciplinary piece of radicalism. A transcendental queer treatise on recycling. A cosmic romance. A promise fulfilled. Badass, revolutionary poetry, sent our way “like a dream transmission from another world that’s a layer in our own”.

What it definitely is (as well as all of those things), is a remarkable collaboration between the film’s co-directors—rapper, poet and actor Saul Williams and cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman—and many, many artists, musicians, actors and craftspeople across Rwanda, the US, France and beyond.

Neptune Frost plots a conjoined revolt against the damaging knock-on effects of consumerism and tech companies. It reaches for a liberation from capitalist structures via bodily autonomy, as well as a new spiritualism around the reclamation of technology and land and individual freedoms.

The main character, an intersex hacker named Neptune (played by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), finds this by fleeing her hometown in the wake of a pastor’s attempt to assault her, to a village named Digitaria, which has been constructed from recycled computer parts. Digitaria has been built to shelter other hackers and people fed up with their exploitation at the hands of governments both foreign and domestic. Guided by a figure she meets in her dreams, Neptune finds a kindred spirit in Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), a coltan miner who also seeks Digitaria after a supervisor kills his friend and fellow worker.

For all its righteous anger however, Neptune Frost is more about reclaiming agency and finding unity than it is about destroying—as reflected in the intoxicating mixture of genre styles in its energetic soundtrack, and in the cobbled-together but artful and punkish DIY outfits that embrace that classic Afrofuturistic tenet of finding new style and culture free from colonialist ideals.

The film’s full-hearted commitment to that search of newness makes Neptune Frost look unlike anything else in cinemas, or even any Afrofuturist film before it. We Zoomed with Williams and Uzeyman for a freewheeling conversation about the film’s Afropunk style, about recycled art and mythology, about drums and stars.

How did you first decide on what a new, futuristic version of this culture should sound like?
Saul Williams: There’s different starting points. The first one I’ll point to is the fact that I grew up wanting to write a musical, so this film is responding to that. So, there’s the narrative of the film, but then there’s the individual narrative of: I always wanted to make a musical. I’ve always questioned why musicals don’t sound more modern, why the American idea of a musical always fits into this box of how the music has to sound, and how corny or goofy it needs to be. I’m like, “Yo, I grew up with really cool-ass music that could really work in a musical. Why aren’t people trying this? Where are the 808s? Where’s the drum and bass? Where’s the punk shit? Where’s the attitude? How can it work differently?” So, that question was there already.

Secondly, this music, as a producer, it of course opened windows for me to approach that question, to start saying, “Oh, what would it sound like? What should I listen to? What should it reflect? Where can we go?” On top of that—aside from the musicians and friends from my musical world [whom] I brought in initially when first fleshing out ideas surrounding these sounds—we then worked with our cast and crew who are... musicians or performers in their own right.

And the final step and stage in the process was collaborating with them because, of course, when I was writing in terms of text, I wrote everything in English, so I had to work with poets and musicians there in order to find the lyrics and how they would work in Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, how it would take shape. So, they brought elements through translation. We worked with the Himbaza Club, the Burundi drum troop, who played our ensemble of minors in the film. It all combined in a beautiful way.

But in terms of the early approach of “what should this thing sound like?”, it was all intuitive. It wasn’t so much of “what does it sound like in outer space?” It was more aligned with where I was naturally heading in terms of sound, what I was yearning to hear, and how that relates to what I think is the progress of not just electronic music, but of where we’re heading or where we can go sonically.

“Fuck Mr. Google!”
“Fuck Mr. Google!”

Anisia, since you were the director of photography, I wanted to ask about your decisions in how to convey this attitude visually?
Anisia Uzeyman: We thought about, how do we convey a space that reflects the other-worldly dimension of this story and in the same time, that enhanced the art history of that world, of recycling, upcycling, et cetera. So, I think for instance, hip hop is a good start with that. Because to me, hip hop, the imagery, the clip, and all of those videos… the music itself is working on upcycling, recycling, resampling and all that movement. There, at least at the beginning of the ’90s, in the hip-hop videos, there is that sense of attitude. That sense of “we belong here, we are inventing here.”

SW: “We have every right to be here. We’re taking this space, I’m the king of rock.” That sense of: “how dare you tell me to move?”

AU: The camera was informed by that type of attitude. Yeah, it is something in-your-face. And also, it’s a type of distance or non-distance with the people. It’s the work on the ensemble scenes, the work on, where is the camera position and things like that, is very much informed by the notion of attitude, getting an attitude.

And then there is the choreography, because it’s a musical, and so the camera and the work on the images, it was important to try to have that same moving sense as people were dancing and singing and being in movement. So, it’s an almost choreographed work on image between the movement, the music.

Cedric Mizero’s design work in the proof-of-concept Kickstarter trailer for Neptune Frost.
Cedric Mizero’s design work in the proof-of-concept Kickstarter trailer for Neptune Frost.

The costume design in Digitaria reminded me of a lot of the African recycled art that I saw growing up. You already mentioned hip-hop videos from the ’90s, but I was wondering if there was anything specific to the region?
SW: Yes. The costume designer slash set designer of the film is a young Rwandan artist named Cedric Mizero. We met Cedric actually when we went to shoot the sizzle reel in Rwanda in 2016. At the time he was like, I don’t know, 21, 22. We were there of course to meet actors and to figure out how we were going to shoot this little sizzle reel that we would then use to attach producers to the project.

Artist and Neptune Frost production designer Cedric Mizero.
Artist and Neptune Frost production designer Cedric Mizero.

We had one conversation with him and he came back the following day with sandals made of motherboards. It was at that moment immediately, that we were really clear that we were talking to the right person who got it, who understood it, who was already invested in the recycling and upcycling of art, but who was already invested as well in the fashion world and equally in the art installation world.

He’s one of the brightest stars of Rwanda. Cedric works with a collective, he’s someone who really cultivates and supports the young artists in Rwanda specifically. He has a house where a lot of artisanal artists work and come to work. He hires a lot of young people to come and work with him. There’s a lot of collectives that have been born out of working under Cedric.

Then on the other side, we didn’t bring over many people because our majority of our cast and crew came from Rwanda and Burundi, but we did fly over a hair and makeup artist that we were already in love with named Tanya Melendez, also known online as Lady Soul Fly. Her collaboration with Cedric was also something that was surreal because they really found a common ground. It’s two visions coming together there.

I wanted to ask about the space in which Neptune and Matalusa first meet—the dreamscape and the man who resides there. Where did that idea come from?
SW: So, that person you’re referring to, who’s an avatar named Potolo, Potolo is perhaps one of the first characters of the film. It’s one of the earliest inspirations and maybe also one of the earliest inspirations of the idea of Afrofuturism, because of course, ‘Potolo’ is a Dogon term that means Sirius, the star, Sirius B. And of course, in the Dogon mythology, [they] would say that they are a people from Sirius, and their God, whose name is Nommo, is seen as a mother, father, God, is what they call it.

Potolo in the film represents someone that has transcended beyond Digitaria into a space that is truly otherworldly and who helped build Digitaria in order to communicate with those who are on this plane and lead them on a path towards the next step, the next world.

Then—I don’t know how clear this is in the film—but when Neptune and Matalusa both begin their disparate journeys, they both fall asleep underneath acacia trees. This still plays within our scope of the world wide web, because one of the first things that I considered a world wide web was also the web of roots beneath the ground. Which is why [Matalusa and Neptune] both fall asleep under an acacia when the avatar Potolo appears.

AU: I love the story, because NASA spent 50 years confirming what the Dogon had discovered hundreds of years ago, without telescopes.

SW: Including Sirius B. Right, so you have the visible star, because Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. That’s the Harriet Tubman star and the Dogon plotted Sirius B and said it was a binary star, that there’s a star and that’s where that song Binary Stars comes from—the Dogon also said that there’s a third star connected to the Sirius B and NASA named that third star Digitaria.

AU: All our computer systems, our coding system, that 01010101 binary, has roots in that discovery. So, this avatar is there to talk about how, when you pair energies, when you connect dots, when you hack into spaces and make a connection between them, how something powerful is possible.

SW: He’s there to connect the relationship between ancestral, mythological origins and future spaces. His arrival is saying, “Hack into this. Hack into this. You should study this, realize the connection between this and this.” He’s there to point out that if you pair those things, that, an understanding and a power is going to be born of it.

AU: And so that’s also the first time Neptune feels that they are about to go through a transformation.

SW: Neptune becomes awakened in that dream in the acknowledgement of what they were assigned at birth versus who they are.

Neptune Frost co-directors Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams.
Neptune Frost co-directors Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams.

Because you’ve spoken about this Malian mythology, and a web of connection and awakening happening naturally, already, are there any other pan-African influences? I’m Zambian, so I’m asking a little for me!
SW: You’re like, “When are you going to say Zambia?!” [Laughs] Well, it’s true that there’s many influences—and there’s other stuff that we thought we were being original about. I’m thinking about how we tell this story to Kaya’s mom. It’s like when there’s an extraordinary singer in the film named Cecile Kaliagba, who makes her film debut at 75 playing a nun, and is a beloved singer and poet in Rwanda. We were really extremely gifted by having her agree to be in the film. But before we knew that we had her, we were auditioning people for that role. One of the people we auditioned was the mother of one of our protagonists, Matalusa, whose name is Kaya. His mother who was also a Burundi refugee living in Kigali is very religious.

Kaya was saying, “Come meet my mom and tell her about the film and maybe she’ll agree to do it.” So, we’re nervous because she’s extremely like, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, super religious. And so we’re like, “Okay, well, the film is about…” and we tell this story of the transformation and all of this thinking, “Okay…” And she goes, “Oh, that old story? That’s an old Burundian folk tale, Kaya don’t you remember I told you that story? We have lots of stories like that. Of course, yes. And then they changed genders over the course of their life and blah, blah, blah, blah. Yes, of course.”

AU: It wasn’t the most shocking at all, for her.

SW: At all. So, we thought we were like, “Neptune Frost! This is my journey!” And she was like, “Yeah.”

AU: The first ideas on the stories came about in Senegal. So, that starts there. And the film is rooted in also very, very deep and important cultural and ancestral rituals and stories from Rwanda, Burundi and the surrounding region, who are, I think, not so accessible and not so known in the Western world. So, a lot of the aesthetic, a lot of the music, a lot of the ways people talk, the poetry, it’s a place that has a huge tradition of poetry there. They were poets for kings and et cetera.

I would say it’s a very African film in the sense of, we really were inspired by materials. I mean, I think when you talk about minerals, about soil, about that wealth of the soil, I do think that you automatically invest into the African continent as a whole.

SW: The film is supposed to serve in many ways as sort of like a fairy tale, so to speak. We’re not just talking about one place, we’re talking about the continent. The film is inspired by the anti-gay laws that were being passed in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, et cetera, while we were writing it. It was inspired by the e-waste camps in Ghana that we discovered while we were creating it.

AU: And by a hundred years of exploitation.

SW: Which is pan-African in that experience, you know what I’m saying? There’s so many layers. I mean, there’s a lot of influence from around the continent, but then also yes, Rwanda and its relationship to cinema is pretty fresh in that, unlike a place like Senegal.

AU: To hear the language and to hear that poetry and those drums, and that aesthetic, it’s not something that has happened very much, you know? That was also part of the excitement. You wouldn’t believe the number of things that are in, for instance, the fashion, the design and things that in fact belong to traditional ways of being dressed and being.

It’s a mixture of a lot of things. Rwanda. Burundi. A lot of things are a mix between Cedric’s imagination on the zero waste and upcycling and recycling movement that is happening on the continent, for sure. That has been there for a minute by the way and has—

SW: —that also inspired the writing of the film. I mean, we were inspired by that upcycling, recycling movement.

AU: But it is also a beautiful mix between that and something traditional.

SW: Yeah, that’s the thing, is that you look at those ancient Rwandan hairstyles, for example, and is it ancient or is it of the future? Because it’s the most futuristic thing you could ever bring to your fucking barber.

AU: Exactly. And we have that all over the continent. People are now discovering all those beautiful ways and paintings on bodies and reflecting it in their art.

SW: And they’re realizing that it was stolen and put on white characters in Star Wars. It’s true. I don’t know if you’ve seen those threads, but it’s crazy. Princess Leia, all of those hairstyles and costumes, I’ve seen ones where they point out all the Indigenous stuff that inspired those Star Wars things. And it just looks crazy because it’s on white people, period!


Neptune Frost’ is in select US cinemas now.

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