“They use our sweat and blood to communicate with each other but have never heard our voice.”
It’s a lyric from a song from the riveting 2021 film “Neptune Frost,” which plays at Space in Portland on Friday and Sunday. Co-directed by multimedia artist Saul Williams and Rwandan filmmaker and actress Anisia Uzeyman, “Neptune Frost” is a dizzying and intoxicating mix of Afrofuturist sci-fi, musical comedy, romance and experimental visuals. It is also a tonic and uncompromising rallying cry against imperialism, colonialism and exploitation in Africa.
Coltan is a mineral without which your mobile phones and computers would not exist. It is also concentrated almost entirely in parts of Africa, such as the Rwandan mine where “Neptune Frost” begins. We see workers swinging pickaxes, the rhythms of their work coalescing into a song that turns into a dirge once a worker, stopping to examine a piece of the precious ore, is beaten to death by one armed guards surrounding the pit.
Coltan mining is mostly done by hand, for pennies, with workers deliberately disconnected from the wealth and power they produce. A miner, Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), the brother of the slain man, shouts that all this toil and horror represents “All you pay not to see”, his sad and angry song accusing the spectator as he flees the mine. In another village, a woman is buried, the local priest chanting platitudes as a young man says, “I was born in my 23rd year.
It’s Neptune, played first by Elvis Ngabo and then by Cheryl Isheja. Neptune also flees, once the priest makes unwanted advances, leading to violence. What follows are the parallel journeys of Matalusa and Neptune who, after many hardships, end up in the same place, a strange encampment in the hills of Burundi, where characters with names like Memory, Psychology, Innocent and Elohel (sound it out) have built DIY shelters, clothing and even prosthetics from discarded and abandoned electronic waste.
“Neptune Frost” is a fable, but far from easy or comforting. Propelled by the songs and poetry of the dazzling all-rounder Williams (star of 1998’s exhilarating indie spoken word “Slam”), the film traffics in dreams and symbols without dissolving into the indulgent mush of other experimental projects by this guy. Part of the reason is Uzeyman’s cinematography, as it relishes the performers’ uniformly excellent dark and glowing skin tones, highlighting how underserved black actors continue to be in mainstream photography. And then there’s the music, weaving through conversations and debates as Matalusa, Neptune and the other escaped miners who have come to join them in their possibly other-dimensional haven discover that Neptune has the ability to tap into every bit of that. information crackling through miners’ hard-earned coltan.
Naming their commune MartyrLoserKing, the group’s hacking efforts begin to disrupt and undermine the placid electronic existence of the rest of the world, while Matalusa and Neptune’s growing connection proves to be the source of the group’s power to make the world finally hear their voice. (“We are not hidden,” a lyric points out, “We are ignored.”)
Neptune, entering the village through a portal in the forest, finally emerges as her true self, an intersex goddess of a new age of liberation and righteous wrath. One character, confronted by another for judging Neptune’s gender identity, chides, “Was gender so crucial to your desire for intimacy? before sadly summing up the fanaticism of toxic masculinity. “Because they were born boys and raised to defend an idea of themselves that won’t support them.” Amen.
It’s all thrillingly strange and beautiful, like a great epic poem and a great sci-fi movie. (It’s like a hybrid of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and Zion from “The Matrix,” only better.) As Neptune’s powers emerge, the screen is disrupted by bursts of psychedelic, swirling electrostatic color. . The all-too-real scenes of government oppression, Western exploitation, and fascist violence surrounding the characters are heightened to a disconcerting degree by the ingenious world-building of “Neptune Frost.” Weird jargon (“A unanimous goldmine” is a common greeting), unexplained technology, and fascinating costumes (all twisted wires and cables, and a coat made entirely of computer keys) combine form and function just as the characters in the film reuse the detritus of the digital age.
There is music and dance, and little bits of dialogue that took me by surprise with their poetic weight. “Imagining hell is a privilege,” notes one character, succinctly telling a whole story in five words. Multiple languages weave into the story – Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and even English, such as when a character spits, “So (expletive) Mr. Google!” during a furious song – and while “Neptune Frost” is a fable, it never lets us just drift away. We are facing. We are involved.
The screenings are co-presented by Space and the Portland-based arts organization Indigo Arts Alliance, which lists part of its mission as “addressing the underrepresentation of black and brown artists.” “Neptune Frost” couldn’t be a better representation of that goal, honestly. It is also a remarkable, breathtaking and deeply entertaining film.
“Neptune Frost” screens at Space on Fridays and Sundays, both at 7 p.m. Tickets are $9, $7 for Space members. What you really should be.
Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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