Originally envisioned as a graphic novel in 2013 with ideas later explored in the 2016 album MartyrLoserKing, the feature directorial debut from multi-hyphenate artist Saul Williams and Rwandan-born artist and cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman, “Neptune Frost” is a bombastic Afrofuturist sci-fi punk musical. After debuting as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, it made festival rounds for months, including the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, and this past Sundance. This Friday, June 3rd, it will make its American theatrical debut via Kino.
As rich in its thematic ideas as it is colorful, Williams and Uzeyman have crafted a universe all their own. Set in the hilltops of Burundi, “Neptune Frost” follows a group of escaped coltan miners who form an anti-colonial hacker collective. Featuring stunning performances from Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja as the titular Neptune, an intersex runaway whose newly found love leads the collective towards its progressive goals, “Neptune Frost” exists in a liminal space, between the binary, where freedom is found within nature and technology.
For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Williams and Uzeyman over Zoom about the collaborative creative process, the poetics of filmmaking, and how Neptune’s story is actually a very old story.
SW: Yeah, exactly. We never abandoned the graphic novel. That’s coming out next year. I’m just super surprised that we beat the graphic novel. On the other hand, the transition from the stage idea to the film idea happened after Anisia and I had already done a residency BANFF for the stage play. We had spent 14 days there working out the script for the stage. Then we started meeting with producers, and one of the people we met with became our lead executive producer. Stephen Hendel was like, I love this idea. He had produced Fela! on Broadway. So he goes, “This is awesome. I think that you all have what could be an even more awesome film.” We were maybe a bit dismissive at first, like no this is a stage play. That’s also because we’re both actors. So it was going to be a vehicle that we saw us both in. Once we thought about it, though, and realized what could happen if we got out of the way, that we would have the opportunity to work with all of this talent to show new faces and to shoot on location. It eventually transitioned into [a film] by 2016, because we started dreaming this up maybe around 2012. In 2016, we went to Rwanda. It was my first time, and it wasn’t for Anisia of course. She brought me with her to Rwanda and we began focusing on shooting the sizzle reel, and met our cast and crew. We realized that we had made the best decision ever.
AU: It was very, very aligned. So we were there in 2016, just to feel the place and also with the artist that is working with us on the graphic novel.
AU: Yes, for him to be able to envision the place in which the story was taking place.
SW: Although we always knew the story took place in Burundi, we could not go to Burundi because of political unrest. We knew that the Rwandan landscape was very similar to the Burundian landscape.
AU: First we met Kaya Free, who plays Matalusa, in a very, very direct way. He was having a show where he was performing. Right after we talked and it just clicked. He was just so enthusiastic about the idea and Kaya is a Burundian refugee who was living in Rwanda at that time. We are in 2016 and there was a huge political unrest in Burundi in 2015. A lot of Burundian refugees were in Rwanda at that time. A lot of artists, activists, students, journalists, you name it. All those people were a part of the vibrant scene of Kigali at that time.
SW: Which was part of the synergistic alignment that Anisia was referencing, because we had a story that we knew was taking place in Burundi. We knew we had to shoot in Rwanda. We were going to audition and we were surprised to meet all of this new young Burundian talent intermingling with the Rwandan talent. So we met Kaya.
AU: We met Kaya, who introduced us to his best friend Trésor Niyongabo, who plays Psychology in the film, who is a journalist who was a student and who also escaped Burundi. Then he invited us one day, an afternoon on a soccer field. We arrived and discovered, like 15 Burundian drummers rehearsing.