Cannes: The first film of the musician, poet, writer and actor is a singular film full of ideas, co-directed by Anisia Uzeyman.
Saul Williams’ latest project is the “MartyrLoserKing Project”, which centers the ideas and talents of the musician, poet, writer, actor and director on an ambitious idea that takes place across three record albums, a graphic novel and now a film. , co-produced with his wife and creative partner Anisia Uzeyman, titled “Neptune Frost”. Premiering at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, the curio sci-fi musical is arguably less about a specific story and is more commendable for its portrayal of a point of view rarely expressed and in a way rarely experienced in cinema.
“Because of the social and global issues flooding my real and virtual timelines, and their countless intersections, as well as the many discussions around these issues, it was important that I merge and fuel all of my creative interests into one story,” Williams said. . of his directorial debut. “I wanted to find a way to talk about everything at once, without necessarily preaching. “
There’s a synopsis that sums up the film, but doesn’t fully capture its ambition: a love story between an intersex runaway (Neptune, played by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja) and a coltan miner (Matalusa, played by Kaya Free), “which lie through cosmic forces causing trouble in the greater divine circuit when they connect, giving birth to a virtual wonder.
The techno-jargon is determined; the entire world that Williams and Uzeyman created may or may not be part of the matrix simulation, and Neptune Frost may or may not be the motherboard, or a modem, serving as a bridge between the analog world of Matasula and a parallel universe that comments on the world parallel to it: ours.
According to the filmmakers, “Neptune Frost”, like most works of art, is certainly open to interpretation. Although, at the very least, his broader, even anarchic, anti-establishment message should be obvious.
The idea was born in 2012 when they were both in Senegal to shoot “Today” by Alain Gomis. In a country very open to business with China (contemporary Sino-African relations occupy an important place in “Neptune Frost”), Williams has witnessed the mesh of worlds represented in his celestial cyber musical.
“People were buying what they thought was the latest technology, like Beats headphones and smartphones, but the traditional ideas, in terms of teenagers building drums for local dance competitions, were still present,” he said. -he declares. “So you would see a teenager come home from school, build his drum out of found materials, put on his Beats headphones, and on the side is the smartphone, and I was just caught up in the mix between ‘old’ technology. and the new technology as something to talk about.
It was also around the same time that he discovered coltan mining and its global relevance. While it is not necessary to know the history of this abundant “conflict resource” in central-eastern Africa (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda) to appreciate what is presented as a history of love, that would help put some context. Like other regions of the world with coveted resources (e.g. oil in the Middle East), the region’s vast mineral wealth has been the source of years of violence and political turmoil over control of its supply. .
“What I find interesting is that a lot of our technological advancements rely heavily on old-fashioned analog exploitation,” said Williams. “You can imagine the story of what’s going on around these coltan mines and all the violations going on there, just so we can call the next Uber. Connect that to sugar, coffee, rubber, cotton and all those other resources that led to exploitation, then make other connections on connections, like the Dogon with the binary code that says they come from. Sirius, the fluidity of genres which is the rupture of the binary, it is the construction of the world. But the public who have never heard of coltan may wonder why.
The “Dogon” are a Malian tribe with a lineage whose rich understanding of advanced astronomy is believed to predate modern science. For Americans, they might be the closest thing to real-life Wakandans. In fact, Dogon culture inspired the Oscar winning “Black Panther” costume designs by Ruth Carter.
Additionally, Neptune Frost’s intersex is an intentional denunciation of the region’s harsh treatment of non-binary Africans via outright anti-gay laws or as a taboo at best, exported by evangelical Americans.
At the heart of the larger “MartyrLoserKing” project is a hacker who grew up on a hill where coltan was discovered and who lives in a self-sustaining, otherworldly e-waste landfill made from recycled computer parts. There, a subversive hacking collective tries to take control of the authoritarian regime by exploiting the natural resources of the region and its inhabitants.
Williams came up with the name “MartyrLoserKing” after hearing a bad French pronunciation from Martin Luther King. But there is more to the title than a slip of the tongue, starting with the end of the martyrdom (“I don’t want another person to have to lay down their life so that we can do this or say that”); the opposite of what is generally associated with gain over capitalism (“especially when that gain comes at the expense of you standing on someone’s neck, but that’s supposed to align with the idea of weird, weird, and that’s where the loser ‘motto’ comes from ”); and finally, his idea of a “loser-king”. “Being the King of Weirdos, the no-nonsense guy, and he’s okay with that.”
Williams’ 2015 poem “Coltan as Cotton,” which equates the cotton economy that fueled the expansion of slavery in the United States with the resource that provides the circuitry for every cell phone, laptop and many other electronic devices, gives an early overview of the development of the project.
“My work is dedicated to all artists who are told they are too weird, too weird, too experimental, too black, too gay, not pretty enough, not pop enough to matter”, a Williams said. “The goal is to transform society through art, to feed the imagination, to challenge apathy and normative thinking. “
His ambition is palpable in “Neptune Frost”. The film may not always be entirely cohesive, as it is packed with great ideas about how a community connects, how valuable resources facilitate that connection, the subjugation of the people and territories where they occur. naturally, the resulting disparities in wealth, and more. , all while confronting the irony of the resource’s objective of “distributing power” through circuits.
But the star of the film is its visual design. His portrayal of a futuristic African society is still rare in contemporary African cinema. And because it takes into consideration the current crises, while the technology is advanced, it is also somewhat crude, due to the region’s high rates of poverty and the current dump of electronic waste that African countries are. (and Asia).
Also particularly neat are the costumes identifying the different groups that occupy the universe of the film. They are clearly anchored in the local culture, with a futuristic utilitarian design.
Renowned Rwandan designer Cedric Mizero is responsible for much of the look of the film, known for his multidisciplinary work through photography, film, space installation, fashion and object. Williams and Uzeyman met the artist in 2016.
Frost of Neptune
“It was one of those occasions where we spent an afternoon or three talking about what we had in mind, and when he finally brought something to show us, we were blown away,” said Williams. “From then on, the question of trust had gone out the window, and for everything, it became: ‘Cedric, what do you think we should do? Because he and his team of artists are so extraordinary. We literally built this village out of recycled computer parts.
As idiosyncratic as the film may be, Williams and Uzeyman don’t care about limiting their audience’s reach with the work. For starters, the intersectionality of the film – technology, music, and fashion – cuts across a wide range of people. Exploiting even a fraction of that audience could be significant.
And then there is the diasporic angle.
“I’m from a place called Newburgh, New York, and I can’t wait for the kids over there to see it because a lot of them dream is, ‘Yo, I wanna go to Africa, man. I’d love to see it, ”and this movie presents them with a vision,” Williams said. “We are also very aware that we had the year when people did not expect a film like ‘Parasite’, which is not in English, which is set in another country, to be able to commit so many “Americans like he did, and win the Oscar for Best Picture. No one has ever heard Kinyarwanda. No one has ever heard Kirundi. And these African languages are beautiful. There is a poetry and a universal musicality.
The next step in the franchise is the completion of the graphic novel which tells the same story, but in a different light, following the journey of coltan miner, Matalusa.
There will of course be a soundtrack for the film (“music is a time machine and this project wouldn’t be crappy without the music, because it’s the hidden door in every door”).
For now, filmmakers are savoring the moment, enjoying the last glimmers of a world premiere at the world’s most prestigious film event. It’s a wonder that a wormhole from a movie like “Neptune Frost” even exists.
“The way we independently funded this was to protect his perspective and our independence to tell this story that we wanted, and to make sure it was done with an all Rwandan and Burundian cast and crew,” Williams said. “Maya Angelou once said that everything an artist writes should be written with the urgency of what he would write if someone had a gun in his mouth. The state of the world has my mouth open enough to swallow entire timelines. “