Neptune Frost

Cheryl Isheja in Neptune Frost. Image courtesy Static Vision


M, 110 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The creatives behind this dystopian indie set in the heartlands of Africa know a thing or two about combining the elements of the film medium. After all, coming up with something eye-catching and original today is a real challenge.

Neptune Frost is a blend of striking imagery and pulsing rhythmic rapper sounds, interspersed with messages of protest against the international system. Banners at demonstrations declare ‘control+delete’, as protesters rail against the invisible corporate and capitalist powers that run the world.

In its way, the film is a playful song of freedom that anyone anywhere can relate to

The elusive plot and blended characters tend to be swamped in the mix, however, which makes the experience of Neptune Frost difficult to pin down with words, although the overarching gestures are easily understood. The film is not one to dismiss simply because it doesn’t all seem to make sense, any more than the early 20th century surrealist images of the European avant-garde

The directors were invited to premiere last year at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, a venue for audiences keen to celebrate something different and new. Now that it has a mainstream release, people have the chance to catch it on the big screen, where they won’t miss a detail of the post-industrial look of a surreal story set in the small African state of Burundi.

The key creatives are Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman who have collaborated as directors. Williams an American rapper, singer-songwriter, musician and poet, wrote the screenplay, and his wife, Uzeyman, an actor from Rwanda, was cinematographer. The shoot itself took place in Rwanda.

Loosely put, the film narrative is about a group of fugitives who operate an anti-colonialist collective hidden away from local authorities. The latest arrivals to the settlement are seeking shelter after escaping a mine where their labour was brutally exploited for coltan, a metallic ore necessary for various electronic devices used by the rest of the world.

The settlement of Digitaria is powered on the detritus of a post-apocalyptic world. Now that the ‘war is over’ the technology piled high around them can be re-purposed for revolutionary purposes in a campaign to bring down the exploitative old order. It seems there are armies of Russian and Chinese hackers out there in cyberspace.

Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), is one of the fugitives sheltering there. He fled the coltan mine where he and fellow miners slaved away after seeing his younger brother murdered by a camp guard. When Matalusa (sounds like Martin Luther) meets Neptune there, sparks fly as they fall in love.

Neptune, an intersex runaway, is first played by Elvis Ngabo, before his character slips into a red sheath dress and high-heels as the role is taken over by actress Cheryl Isheja. She looks amazing whenever she is in the frame.

The production design, costume and art direction is by Cedric Mizero, a Rwandan who has already attracted attention from the international media. The work of makeup artist, Tanya Melendez, with its flourishes of glitter and fluoro face paint, also contributes to the film’s astonishing look. Sometimes I felt I was watching a cyberpunk fashion extravaganza.

A google on the internet reveals that Burundi has certainly suffered. It is one of the smallest African states, and one of the poorest, with little forest cover left and most if its other resources exploited beyond measure. So, it’s hardly any surprise to read that it occupies a spot near the bottom of the happiness index too.

A dystopian vision of a low fi, hi tech future that is the full waking dream

When the characters speak there is a teasing blend of words in English and French, the languages of colonialism, in the Kirundi, Swahili and other languages of the African peoples of the region. It’s a reminder of how the influence of exploiting forces lingers.

Just what Williams and Uzeyman have dreamt up here is difficult to define or even describe without getting caught in the trap of reductionism. From its coded wordplay to surreal scenes with a celestial character dispensing advice on what best to do with the future, to its camera positions in the bird’s-eye-view, accompanied by the sound of flapping wings, Neptune Frost throws down the gauntlet.

With its dystopian vision of a low fi, high tech future it is the full waking dream. An intriguing cyberpunk futuristic experience for some, if not for all.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 December 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes