If Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams were going to imagine the future in “Neptune Frost,” it was always intended to be as inclusive as possible, but what they couldn’t expect was how clearly the future was standing right in front of them as every collaborator brought their ideas to the table
“Talking to [our production and costume designer] Cedric Miser for the first time about what we were dreaming of, [he] came to the second meeting with sandals made of motherboards,” Williams recently recalled. “So this thing jumped out at us where we realized not only what we were dreaming possible, but that it was going to be even more interesting and beautiful to look at than we may have possibly imagined.”
Anyone familiar with Uzeyman and Williams already will know that few dream bigger. Still, the partners in life and now in film, who first collaborated as actors on Uzeyman’s “Dreamstates” and share directing duties on “Neptune Frost,” have amassed an army of artists for their film cryptically set “after the war” to offer up a vision that show the possibilities of what could be in Africa if collective power was harnessed towards creative ends rather than the exploitation by corporate forces and local government that has long undermined its Black community.
Leading by example, the wildly inventive musical is centered around two characters chipping away at the world in what ways they can, whether it’s in the mines where Matalusa (Kaya Free) can be seen toiling with a pickaxe in a landfill of discarded technology or online where a hacker named Neptune (Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja, splitting time as the gender-bending character) continues to make use of their computer, aiming to disrupt the regime that upholds a system of vast inequity. The two are spiritually drawn to one another and hatch an escape plan that doesn’t only free them from the physical trappings of the world they were born into but the psychological hold it has over their lives, reworking whatever elements are at their fingertips to serve them rather than be in service of someone else. Utilizing the real e-waste sites in Burundi and many of the displaced that have come to make it their home for much of the cast, Uzeyman and Williams come to show how ideas of liberation carry as infectious anthems and hymns cut across space and time, with individual voices able to be heard among the growing chorus.
A largely indescribable cinematic experience, “Neptune Frost” arrives in theaters this week after a celebrated festival run that included stops at Cannes, the New York Film Festival, Toronto and Sundance, and Uzeyman and Williams were kind enough to spare a few words about pulling off the provocative spectacle that began with thoughts of a graphic novel or a Broadway musical and evolved into a galvanizing communal effort both on screen and off.
Once this took the form of a film, were there things you could get excited about that might not have been part of your ideas for it initially?
Saul Williams: Certainly, yes. It was intended as a musical for the stage first and once we decided to take on the film format, it liberated us in many ways to get out of the way and open the door to show the faces of new talent to shoot in Rwanda, to explore something that could be in many ways more authentic.
I understand the collaboration with Burundi refugees might’ve taken this in directions you hadn’t expected. What was it like to work with them?
Anisia Uzeyman: Burundi came into the picture pretty early. It was a place of imagination and of projection of the story, and it was written before 2015 and then in 2015, the political unrest drove a lot of refugees out of the country, mostly activists, students, who were fighting the reelection of the president.
Saul Williams: And it drove them into Kigali, or many of them into Rwanda.
Anisia Uzeyman: So Rwanda actually welcomed 250,000 refugees and we found ourselves in 2016 in Kigali. It was the first time Saul was coming into Rwanda and we started to meet a lot of those Burundian refugees, activists, and artists who had crossed the border and were doing a lot of things in Kigali at that time, trying to go on with their new lives, coming from a situation that was really traumatic.
Saul Williams: Yeah, from the moment we started holding auditions, there were a number of Burundian talent that already integrated with the Rwandan talent on the local scene there…
Anisia Uzeyman: First, we met Kaya Free, who plays Matalusa, and is an artist and musician in the Burundian scene and from there, we met his best friend Trésor [Niyongabo] who was a journalist, so they were students at the time of the unrest and led many of the manifestations. The way they shared their stories at that time was really crucial to what “Neptune Frost” became — the way they were students at university, how their university was taken by the military and then how they found themselves on the streets and the stories that they shared of themselves getting out of Burundi. It was just a very amazing and strange thing that Burundi was on our mind and it happens that in 2016 when we were there to shoot that sizzle reel, Burundians were there.
Saul Williams: And those two introduced us to the Burundian drummers, [telling us], “You have to see the Himbaza Club,” so they took us to a soccer field to see their rehearsals, and they were also refugees from Burundi. That group of drummers became our ensemble who played the miners in the film.
Anisia Uzeyman: They escaped Burundi with a truck full of drums, and what you see in the film is what they carried with them. It was very impressive and we thought it was something that had to be incorporated in the storytelling, so we went on that soccer field and there were like 20 drummers with huge drums and [they] dance and sing and have a synchronicity and share a story, all living together at that point, hustling in the new country.
Anisia, you actually spent three years learning how to work a camera so you could be the film’s cinematographer, but when it’s such an original vision, what do you want to hold onto about your own instincts versus what you needed to know to bring the vision to the screen?
Anisia Uzeyman: I wanted to secure a certain quality and technique because it’s a lot of science and a lot of the art to put together an image — what is in the frame, how you light somebody or the distance you have with that person. It all comes together to convey a story and emotions, but what I could bring was my instinct, but also my knowledge as somebody who’s an actress first and has that sensitivity and relationship to [other] actors into making an image, so I tried to see how it was possible for those two things to meet.
Saul Williams: Yeah, I had that feeling that Anisia had to be the one to shoot it because I was already in love with how her relationship to camera, to image, to framing, to music and then since we were shooting there, her relationship to Rwanda, so all of these things seemed to make sense. Sure enough, with the work that she had done before in “Dreamstates” and the music videos, she already had this relationship to music and movement that just felt like it was going to carry the film into this visual ecstasy.
I couldn’t have put that feeling to words any better myself. Was there anything that really came as a surprise during filming?
Saul Williams: We had our dreams of what we wanted, but there was a true magic of alignment when we first arrived in Rwanda, and I’m talking about for the [initial] sizzle reel in 2016, for the first week, we had already encountered many of the principal roles in the film along with some of the ensemble, the drummers and our costume designer and artistic director. All of those encounters that we had on the ground in Rwanda really brought it to a new level when we realized we were working with many actors who were already singers who already had a relationship to music and finding a drum collective to play the ensemble, and what that does for their already existing synergy…
Anisia Uzeyman: Cecile Kayiregawa, who plays [the elder nun], is a renowned singer in Rwanda and for anyone who knows that place, [what] it was like to have her, to be able to work with her and to capture her in this film — she’s really revered, it was like meeting a queen. [laughs] And when we got the possibility to get in touch with her through her son…
Saul Williams: Which came as a surprise while we were there to shoot. We never expected that to happen.
Anisia Uzeyman: We were like, “What? What? She’s okay to do this?” Then she came with her own translation and her own poetry over what Saul was proposing as a song for her. That moment, everybody on set was just like, “[What] a beautiful, beautiful gift that she was allowing to be shared with the cast.” For everyone, it was just like…
Saul Williams: “What?!?!?! Cecile Kayiregawa is here?!?” It was such a huge moment on set. It was like a blessing for the film. Also, she was making her screen debut at the age of 75, but our film has a new generation of artists and suddenly here was this elder figure who was suddenly saying, “What you all are doing is extraordinary. And I want to be a part of it.” That really lifted the spirits of the film while we were shooting. There were a number of beautiful surprises.
Anisia Uzeyman: Yeah, the surprises came mostly from our ability to do it, which was not a given. Every day was a surprise that we could go on with the week and the 27 days of shooting. And every encounter, every person that is there carries stories for us that are very important. Everyone came with something that is precious.
Saul Williams: Yeah, our choreographers, the other actors, the art collective that contributed to the building of the set, they all brought something that we never could’ve brought to life without the magic of their arrival and excitement to tell this story with us.
“Neptune Frost” opens on June 3rd in New York at the Quad Cinemas and BAMCinematek and Dallas at the Texas Theater. It expands nationally on June 10th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.