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Mesmerizing Afrofuturist Musical 'Neptune Frost' Sends a Message About Global Connection


Published May 18, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

LADY IN RED Isheja lights up the screen in Williams and Uzeyman's mesmerizing Afrofuturist, cyberpunk musical. - COURTESY OF WHITE RIVER INDIE FILMS
  • Courtesy Of White River Indie Films
  • LADY IN RED Isheja lights up the screen in Williams and Uzeyman's mesmerizing Afrofuturist, cyberpunk musical.

On Friday, White River Indie Films returns for its 17th annual festival with a program of 11 features and assorted shorts, most of them screening over two weekends at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction.

On Saturday, May 21, at 7 p.m., WRIF offers Neptune Frost, a nominee for two awards at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Filmed in Burundi and billed as an Afrofuturist "sci-fi punk musical," the movie is a directorial collaboration of American slam poet and musician Saul Williams and Rwandan playwright and actor Anisia Uzeyman. There's a good chance it's like nothing you've ever seen before.

The deal

Two young people in Burundi, both on the run, connect through a mystical dream of a "Wheel-Man," who urges them to "hack" their dystopian world and find freedom.

Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) is fleeing a life of brutal drudgery as a miner of coltan, a metallic ore used in electronic devices and mined in several African nations. After witnessing the murder of his brother, Tekno (full name: Technology), he finds his way to a makeshift village of hackers that is said to exist in another dimension.

Meanwhile, Neptune (Elvis Ngabo) violently rebuffs the attentions of an intrusive priest, tosses a pair of high heels and a stunning red dress in a bag, and lights out across the country. Called "intersex" in the film's description, Neptune initially presents as male but soon experiences a transformation into a powerful female incarnation (Cheryl Isheja).

When Neptune and Matalusa meet in the hacker village, sparks fly. The whole internet feels the power of their connection. And Matalusa's name gives birth to the phrase Martyr-Loser-King, the watchword of a techno-revolutionary movement.

Will you like it?

Neptune Frost is a hard movie to summarize and an even harder movie to look away from. It proceeds less like a conventional narrative than like a poem composed of words, images, sounds, physical gestures and freighted metaphors.

Take the Frost part of the title: It's the name of a white dove smeared with red (a combination echoed visually in some of the characters' makeup) that appears to facilitate the protagonists' passage to the other-dimensional village. "They fly through portals where pain is the only passport," we're told of such birds. But whose pain? Why a dove? Why frost? Does it matter?

Neptune Frost is part of a larger multimedia project by Williams, including music albums and a graphic novel, so it's entirely possible that this universe has a comprehensive wiki that answers such questions. Viewers may find it easier just to let the movie wash over them, however, because this avant-garde concoction is hypnotic from beginning to end.

The film has a low-budget, DIY feel, yet every single frame conveys loving intention. Every element — lighting, blocking, music, inventive costuming and props — plays a role in transporting the viewer into a liminal space where anything might happen.

Even the natural landscape imposes a vibrant presence. Despite being highly theatrical in style, Neptune Frost rarely feels as if it's shot on a soundstage.

Consider a short scene, unusually naturalistic for this movie, in which Neptune rides a ferryboat across a lake at twilight. Still played by a man at this point, Neptune removes the hidden high heels and tries them on. A female passenger smiles, seemingly approving. The calm lake, the silent exchange, the enticing, hurdy-gurdy-like musical riff in the background — all add up to a magical moment in which gender becomes overtly fluid and transgression possible.

The story is set in an alternate reality in which people carry hexagonal cellphones and toil for an oppressive regime called the Authority, which is represented, in a whimsical touch, by cops in crisp pink shirts. But make no mistake: The real enemy is us — that is, the viewer in the so-called "developed" world who buys the cheap devices that coltan miners make possible with their hard labor.

A series of rousing protest songs, one called "Fuck Mr. Google," makes the film's underlying message crystal clear: "They use our blood and sweat to communicate with each other," Matalusa says, "but have never heard our voice." The movie carries a subtler message, too: The technology that exacerbates such inequalities also makes it possible, by connecting all of us, to amplify unheard voices until they can no longer be ignored.

An experience not to be missed, Neptune Frost contains far more ideas and iconography than I can decipher. For more insight, check out WRIF's panel discussion on "Afrofuturism and Unpacking Neptune Frost" on Sunday, May 22, with Dartmouth College faculty members Desirée J. Garcia, Iyabo E. Kwayana and Misty De Berry.

If you like this, try...

After Sherman (2022; Saturday, May 21, 3 p.m., at WRIF): Jon-Sesrie Goff's acclaimed documentary is painfully relevant to today's headlines. The film's second half explores the aftermath of Dylan Roof's murder of nine congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — where Goff's father handled the funerals as interim pastor.

Stop-Zemlia (2021; Friday, May 20, 7 p.m., at WRIF): The festival's opening-night film, from Ukrainian director Kateryna Gornostai, is a coming-of-age story about high school students in Kyiv. Donations support five Ukrainian families with children studying at Dartmouth College.

Hit the Road (2021; Saturday, May 28, 7 p.m., at WRIF): This debut from Iranian director Panah Panahi tells the ostensibly humorous, low-key story of a family on a road trip. But they have more urgent motives than just seeing the sights.