The Afrofuturist and socio-politically revolutionary film is never less than fascinating in its image of an alternative world – but also labours the point a bit too much.
What, I wondered as I watched the film, do we make of Neptune Frost? Here is a film that ranges from psychedelic delirium to furious sloganeering in a story that we can best describe as slowly unfolding. It’s a film that is at once brilliant and frustrating, angry and hypocritical, and quite unlike anything else that you might see. Oh, and it’s also a musical. After watching the film, I wasn’t sure if I’d just seen a work of genius or self-satisfied self-indulgence. I suspect it’s a little bit of both.
Neptune Frost is one of those movies that slowly develops its narrative, initially taking the viewer on a whirlwind of imagery and dialogue that is deliberately obtuse with futuristic speech patterns – ‘Unanimous Goldmine’ being a universal greeting – and dialogue in the early part of the film that is often a series of unexplained slogans and words that the viewer is left to uncover and make sense of, much as in films like A Clockwork Orange. It’s a dazzling, complex but endlessly fascinating study in the alternative, making its moments where we leave the ‘real’ world and enter the film’s alternative universe intriguingly curious and ambiguous. The titular character (Elvis Ngabo) takes a boat ride, puts on a pair of high heels and then, as Lou Reed might say, “he was a she”, the character transitioning into Cheryl Isheja. Very timely, you might think, given the current Western fascination and fury with gender fluidity. She arrives in the counter-dimensional world of Digitaria, a collective of computer hackers and rebels with curious names that exists outside the dimensions of the real world yet bleeds across. Neptune hooks up with escaped coltan miner Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) – later referred to as Mata Lusa King, and if you can’t translate that name into something else, I despair – to lead some sort of cultural and social rebellion against the privileged West exploiting the resources and people of Africa by hacking into global computer systems with revolutionary slogans – which feels a tad 1990s cyber-sci-fi, you might think and indeed it is, though no one seems to acknowledge or apologise for the dated concepts at work – similarly, the residents of Digitaria wear clothing and body art created from circuit board cast-offs in a very cyberpunk style, proving that yesterday’s futurism becomes today’s futurism as well, given enough time. Or perhaps it is a deliberate nod towards that sort of science fiction, an immediately recognisable and increasingly timeless visual reference point. It is, anyway, so dated a concept that it now feels fresh and revolutionary once again.
The first half of the film is a dizzying experience, beautiful and baffling at the same time, taking us into a world that is removed from normality and a step away, but not entirely removed from the images of African nations that we are used to seeing in cinema – the movie was shot in Rwanda but is set in Burundi – an alternative or future Burundi, it seems – and flits between several languages, creating a fascinating netherworld that feels off-key and unsettling in a way that you can’t quite define. That much of the dialogue slips in and out of song is intriguing too, because this certainly doesn’t feel like a musical in the Hollywood sense – the songs are continual and often broken and brief, becoming a part of the narrative rather than an awkward interruption. They unsettle the viewer and add to the overall oddness.
The second half of the film, however, is a lot less interesting than the first. It starts to feel like the agitprop theatre of the 1970s, full of determined sloganeering and angry rhetoric that is often delivered directly to the camera and becomes a tad wearing. There may be valid arguments about Western exploitation here but there’s an argument that less is more sometimes – the film is so busy preaching at this point that it doesn’t actually do anything else and the message gets rather buried in the sound and fury of its relentless delivery. In that sense, it feels a bit like the more overtly political films of Jean-Luc Godard – brilliant but also annoyingly finger-wagging, as if the filmmakers believe themselves to be smarter than everyone else and are determined to let us all know it. I was also very aware that co-director and project creator Saul Williams is an American (his co-director and wife, Anisia Uzeyman, is Rwandan) and some of the political and social angst here feels like very American ideas projected onto the culture being portrayed – cultural imperialism, if you like. Notably, the film is full of queer representation and celebrates queer culture – but we might note that gay relationships are illegal in Burundi and barely tolerated in Rwanda, where same-sex marriage remains illegal and discrimination is rife. Presumably, Digitaria is an alternative oasis outside the real-life Burundi, an escape not just from the horrors of civil war and exploitation but also the sexual repression and conformity of the real world – but in its eagerness to condemn Western culture, the film finds little space to also criticise the repressive nature closer to home, other than in the form of shadowy government body The Authority, which itself is a tool of Western exploitation.
It’s an all-or-nothing approach that lacks nuance and starts to become a little exhausting after a while, not least because it brings the entire film narrative to a bit of a halt. We discover that, through a magical hook-up that brings new life to dead electronics through the power of Neptune, the collective can hack the entire world – but it doesn’t go anywhere other than some arguments about what should be done with this new global influence. In a sense, that’s more of a realistic interpretation – revolutionary movements all tend to descend into confused infighting about what to do next, especially after an unexpected success. But even this confusion and disagreement that will, inevitably, lead to the downfall of the commune (or not – but let’s not spoil things) takes a long time to emerge, so busy is everyone with shouting slogans that seem to reflect the political Western concerns of the film creators more than anything. The film belatedly allows nuance and story development and is all the better for it.
This is, then, a film of two halves. It’s never less than fascinating, though. The collision of visual spectacle, alternative reality and music make it feel like a uniquely immersive experience that feels genuinely revolutionary, even if it is actually not doing anything that radical – it’s the collision of otherwise cliched images of computer glitches and cyberpunk fashions with new and fresh ideas that tie the film to its African roots while exploring global ideas. The moments that are heavy going feel less like hard work because of the overarching spectacle and imagination that propel the film forward. I’m interested to see what Williams and Uzeyman might do in the future.
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