Hauntingly beautiful and deeply enigmatic, “Neptune Frost” has enjoyed perhaps the most coveted festival run of 2021. Blending science fiction, dance and allegorical elements, the striking Afrofuturist feature debuted at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It has since been invited to screen at some of the top showcases: Toronto, New York, London, Sundance, Rotterdam and Gothenburg — all venues where African cinema, especially experimental, formally ambitious work, remains relatively uncommon.
The opening scenes of this curious film hint at the poetic paths it intends to take. Past and future, dreams and realities, mourning and possibility, death and other dimensions comprise the terrain. And if you think that sounds vague or thrilling or frustrating, you’d be right on all counts. Directed by Saul Williams and his partner Anisia Uzeyman, this debut feature rebuffs the easy comforts of storytelling.
Shot and set in Rwanda, “Neptune Frost” takes on war, capitalism, identity and liberation. It begins with an unseen narrator. Her/their declaration “I was born in my 23rd year” cues viewers into the film’s symbolic and soulful terrain. While the narrator sets a poetic tone, the camera gazes around a gravesite where mostly women have gathered, and a minister is offering platitudes. The camera focuses on a striking young man. This is Neptune — or Neptune before a startling transformation. (Two actors play the title character: Cheryl Isheja and Elvis “Bobo” Ngabo.)
The film shifts from the grave to a mining operation and introduces Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse). The killing of his brother, Tekno, by a security guard — an overseer really — launches his journey. Neptune’s trek, too, begins with an act of violence. On their parallel journeys, Matalusa and Neptune will encounter characters with names that speak to the film’s allegorical ambitions: Innocent, Memory, Psychology.
Williams is a slam poet-actor-composer, Uzeyman a Rwanda-born actor and a writer. Their skill sets are on display here. “Neptune Frost” feels operatic and the performances are strange and mesmerizing. Or perhaps the film is intergalactically attuned in ways that recall the metaphysical ambitions of the great jazzman Sun Ra.
Early on, the script plays, as only a poet would, with the different meanings of “currency” and “mine.” “What is mine?” the narrator asks as men pickaxe in a quarry. Rwanda is the largest exporter of the metal, which is often included in the lists of “conflict minerals.”
While the storyline is elusive, the musical interludes are striking. Miners sing a chant as nearby drummers keep a beat. Students push against the police with a rhythmic protest chant that Neptune begins humming.
“Neptune Frost” makes a persuasive argument for the importance of film festivals. They are not merely market driven. They are also havens for ideas. They provide space for experimentation, for anti-narratives, for poetry and arias. Even though “Neptune Frost” teases viewers with the story of two characters who head out at the movie’s start, it resists time and again the demand to make linear sense. It’s not about the traditional hero’s journey so much as the hero’s dream.
“Neptune Frost” challenges or — to borrow a word from one of the characters in a dream — “hacks” the interpretive pathways movie audiences have grown so accustomed to navigating. It does not court our understanding, it does not make following easy, but it does whisper to us and spark connections. In that way, it is like a dream: fitful, feverish, promising.