Most people have probably never heard of tantalum, a rare, blue-gray transition metal derived from the ore columbite-tantalite (colloquially known as coltan). Yet most people use this obscure element every day: Tantalum is a critical component of the capacitors found in virtually every modern computerized device, from smartphones to video-game consoles to automotive electronics. Unfortunately, coltan is also classified as one of the world’s key conflict minerals. Its most substantial global reserves are found in Central Africa, where its extraction has supported and prolonged regional wars, most notably the First and Second Congo Wars and the ongoing Kivu conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. (To say nothing of the environmental effects of coltan mining, which include the usual erosion and pollution issues, as well as a devastating toll on the endangered eastern mountain gorilla.)
All of this makes for enlightening context, but it isn't strictly necessary to appreciate the mesmerizing weirdness of Neptune Frost, a surrealist Afro-futurist fable that is at least nominally about coltan extraction and the hidden costs of our modern comforts and conveniences. The plot is kicked off by the death of a coltan miner named Techno, whose skull is cracked open by a guard when he becomes enraptured by a chunk of the valuable ore. This so traumatizes his friend and fellow worker Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) that the man flees the mine and escapes into the wilderness. While wandering, his dreams are visited by a Day-Glo trickster spirit known as the Wheel Man, who guides him toward a strange, extra-dimensional sanctuary deep in the forest. There Matalusa falls in with the techno-shaman Memory (Eliane Umuhire) and the one-armed revolutionary Elohel (Rebecca Mucyo), who fashioned her own cybernetic prosthetic after her limb was hacked off by the totalitarian government known simply as the Authority.
Concurrently, the film introduces its other co-protagonist, a wary man named Neptune (Elvis Ngabo), who is likewise on the run, having accidentally killed a sexually predatory priest. Neptune experiences the same visions as Matalusa, although his journey is briefly derailed when he suffers an accident and falls under the care of an enigmatic witch. This healer’s rituals dramatically transform Neptune, who emerges as a woman (now played by Charyl Isheja) and dons the strappy pumps and satiny red dress she had secreted in her rucksack. Eventually, Neptune is drawn to the refuge where Matalusa now dwells, along with other coltan miners who have joined this burgeoning collective of evangelistic cyberpunks. Their sanctuary seems to possess an esoteric life of its own – Memory insists that the site is ancient – and they gradually transform it from an e-waste junkpile in the middle of nowhere into a buzzing, crackling hub of digital resistance.
All of this perhaps overstates the role of plot in Neptune Frost, which is much more concerned with aesthetics, rhythm, and radical politics than with explaining itself. The story unravels like an ibogaine-spiked vision quest, with each sequence bleeding dreamily into the next. Although it is ostensibly a science-fiction tale, this is not a film that is remotely interested in the nitty-gritty science of its premise. The English homophonic translation of Matalusa’s name – “Martyr-Loser”— quickly becomes synonymous with this larger group of outcasts, who style themselves as hackers opposed to the pervasive authoritarian systems that seek to control and exploit them. Their hacking is as much spiritual as it is technological: The refuge appears to acquire power and Wi-Fi spontaneously, and the group’s digital assault on the Authority (and the wider global capitalist monolith) occurs without any obvious keyboard-focused effort. Instead, their power is catalyzed by the erotic-magical connection between Neptune and Matalusa and sustained by the collective’s alternately joyous and impassioned musical numbers. Did I mention that this is a musical?
Neptune Frost is the dazzling brainchild of co-directors Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams, the latter having reportedly developed the screenplay from an early concept for a graphic novel and theatrical musical. Williams is best known as a multi-hyphenate rapper and poet who has long been fascinated by revolutionary politics and Afro-futurist imagery. (The film’s hacker group borrows its moniker from Williams’ 2016 studio album, MarytrLoserKing.) His fingerprints are all over the film’s compositions, a striking gestalt of cosmic electronica, experimental hip-hop, and traditional Central African music.
However, Neptune Frost is very much a collaborative effort. Co-director Uzeyman serves as cinematographer, her visuals enhanced by trippy effects that range from modern CGI to the kind of cheesy digital animation that was ubiquitous in ’90s sci-fi thrillers about the nascent Internet. That said, the most striking aspect of the film is its production design, which blends a grungy recycled aesthetic with the neon elegance of high fashion. Characters wrap themselves in twisted wire and don transistors as if they were jewelry, while their vivid, shimmering makeup evokes some lost William Gibson story by way of David Bowie and Grace Jones. (A favorite bit of costuming: Mataluna’s marvelous poncho, which is covered in black plastic keyboard caps.)
Neptune Frost’s identity as a musical is essential to its success as a hypnagogic work of cinema. Although it’s easy enough to parse the broad strokes of the narrative – it is, at bottom, a tale of awakening and rebellion – the film’s stylistic choices are at times so defiantly unconventional that it flirts with inscrutability. Fortunately, the film’s multi-lingual rapping and propulsive percussion provide a harmonious sonic substrate for its outré gestures. They ease the viewer into an eccentric, techno-mystical unreality that might have be more alienating in a non-musical feature.
Not that Uzeyman and Williams are all that concerned with their audience’s comfort. Neptune Frost is a work of provocation, a middle finger to the regional dictatorships and neo-colonial power networks that continue to subjugate the African continent, despite (or because of) its abundance of people and resources. As with all punk art, the film’s wildly eccentric surface expresses a deeper social and political discontent, a throbbing thirst for justice that is as frightening to the establishment as, say, the notion that gender is mutable and complicated. The film’s ethos is perhaps best described as anarcho-socialist, although applying a neat and tidy label to Neptune Frost feels wrong-headed given that its animating energy is so ferociously opposed to structures and categories.
In the film, the ubiquitous term “hack” takes on a meaning similar to the use of “queer” as a verb. The Wheel Man urges Mataluna to hack the government, hack the economy, hack the military. Yet Neptune Frost is also about the revolutionary compulsion (necessity, one might say) of hacking everything: race, gender, sex, class, beauty, and most of all the false binary of primitivism vs. technology. The ley line and the fiber-optic cable are one in the same in the digital animism that takes shape under Neptune and Mataluna’s visionary influence, a river of light that carries the power of the people. Uzeyman and Williams’ feature is enigmatic, and it can even be frustrating in its meandering opacity, but its radical, transformative spirit is always crystal clear. Although the film’s conclusion offers a sharply pessimistic view of the fate of most revolutionary movements, it also leaves behind a hopeful ember: People can be killed, but ideas are bulletproof.
Neptune Frost will screen nightly on June 23 and 29 - 30 at the Webster University Film Series.