Africa’s cinematic history is as diverse as its people. There’s our Senegalese cinematic “father” Ousmane Sembène, the post-colonial emergence of Nigeria’s Nollywood (the largest film industry on the continent, and second largest in the world in terms of volume), the indigenous cinema from Egypt or Tunisia dating back to the late 1800s…you get the picture. Granted, many of the continent’s film industries are still young– shifting, shaping, contorting (sometimes flailing) into cinematic languages that are influenced by social, economic, and political powers.
Nowadays, when I hear the term “African cinema,” its definition is nebulous and laden with subtext, much like the word “urban.” With a majority of Africa’s cinematic funding coming from co-productions in Europe and its global distribution relying on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, one can’t help but worry that current film democratization is being sifted through a bland, standardized, one-note filter to be funneled onto our screens, only discernible by its connection to the same gigantic land mass.
Fortunately, “Neptune Frost” releasing nationwide today, is taking a bold approach in re-routing African cinema outside of its expected path.
“Neptune Frost” is a musical sci-fi about an intersex hacker and a group of coltan miners who form a collective in Burundi to topple a colonialist regime. After viewing, I knew I had seen something special. Its unwavering voice and message jolt the senses, and as a filmmaker, it feels like power transferred into your control. I spoke to the directors of the film, Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams, to discuss the expansiveness of African creativity, the journey of directing a narrative that felt true to them, and the realities of maintaining autonomy when telling African stories.
“Neptune Frost” releases in theaters today! Check your local showtimes.
Oluwaseun Babalola: I’ve been following this film for a long time, maybe 2018 is when I first heard about it. It seems to have been a long journey. I’m curious to know, how did you get from A to B? I read that it was supposed to be a graphic novel first and then maybe a stage play.
Saul Williams (SW): The project was born as a graphic novel and stage play. It still is a graphic novel, which comes out next year. The thing that shifted was that when we did a residency, working on it as a stage play, we then met with a Broadway producer, Steven Handel, who produced Fela! The Musical, who said, “I love this idea. I love this project. I think it should be a film.” We were resistant at first, because we were already working on it in a particular way, but then we realized that if it were a film, we’d be able to shoot on location. We were writing a story that takes place in Burundi. The idea of working with these actors, the language, the land, all these things started becoming more, more and more exciting. That was in 2014, when the producer said that.
Anisia Uzeyman (AU): In 2016, we realized first that the story was asking to be told right. Because all those people were very, very excited about the narration and about the subject of the film. So that’s the moment when we were like, ‘okay, we’re going to have to do this.’ That’s really the moment where we realized that we will find any means and ways of making this film. In 2018, the campaign was also meant to build a community around that type of narrative, and to allow us to be able to have a production over there with those actors in that language, et cetera, kind of creating a protective–
SW: Yeah, we needed a protective layer around us because the more we work, the more we realized the story was going to push some buttons. Not in really hardcore ways, but just in the sense of when you’re in Hollywood and you say you want to make a film, the question is, “Who’s in it?” And we wanted to shoot with our cast and crew that we found; we don’t want to throw in some random celebrity to center them in this story. And then, “what language is it in?” We don’t want to make these people fluid in language, who speak five different languages as the film reflects, suddenly have to be simplified into one language because that’s the language we, the viewers, are going to be absorbing it in. We knew we were fighting all of that. Kickstarter really helped us say, “Look at all the people who are excited about wanting to see a story like this.” It helped us have something to talk to other producers, so that we could then find the rest of the funding to make the film.
I’ve heard of this being referred to, as an answer to Afrofuturism today, or a musical science fiction film. How would you classify the film?
AU: I love how you say, “Response to Afrofuturism today.” So, for you, Afrofuturism, is already in the past?
Well, honestly the film for me is more contemporary. I feel like it’s very relevant to what’s happening today.
SW: We feel the same way, we feel like it’s modern. You know, Anisia and I have often, for ourselves, chosen the simplest terms. We’re like, it’s a Science. Fiction. Musical.
AU: That’s what we worked with. When you offer a layered narrative like “Neptune Frost”, I don’t think you are going to do something different other than to try to tell the story of your characters and to be the most generous with it. We never thought about framing it in “Afrofuturism” or “fantastic” or whatever the thing is.
SW: We really just wanted it to be something that you can’t miss. Something that corresponded with what we really want to see. There’s a reflection of us projecting ourselves in the way we love to see ourselves, which we think is important, which we think is crucial for cinema, for art, for expression.
AU: And also to be a platform for all those beautiful, amazing talents to be shown to the world. To be able to share a story and a space, share it with the world and to invite the world to be a part of it is what motivated us. We were really inspired by contemporary science fiction and Octavia Butler–
SW: -and also by a lot of contemporary art coming from the continent already.
AU: Like photography, Lagos photography. South Africa to Ethiopia. Going from Nigeria to Togo to Kenya, there is a young scene. Because of images’ democratization, the possibility of us making images got more accessible. There is a movement right now that I think is extraordinary that I was paying a lot of attention to—we were paying a lot of attention to.
SW: Yeah and the purpose was to showcase that.
You succeeded at that. One of the things that I really loved about the film is that it didn’t feel like it was catering to any specific type of gaze. It felt very rooted in reality and very rooted in what was happening on the continent right now. It felt honest and it felt like there was a very clear vision.
In terms of the aesthetics, I had a question, because there was a strong attention to detail with that too, like the costume design and the masks people would wear. When you’re co-directing as a team, was there a split on like, well, this is my vision for it. This is how it’s going to go. How did you approach that?
SW: In my memory of it, I don’t think there was any conflict in those regards.
AU: No. Very organic. Complementary. We don’t have the same strengths and the same brain at all.
SW: If she thinks this is the thing of how it should look, I’m like, you’re the one who has the brains about how it should look, I can talk all day about how it should sound, you know what I’m saying? So, there’s that, and then also our team, right? Because you mentioned costumes, hair and makeup, and set.
We worked with an extraordinary artist named Cedric Mizero. Even on our first encounter with him in 2016, when we told them the story of what we were planning to do to shoot the sizzle reel, he came back the next day with sandals made of motherboards, which let us know that, that he got it. Simultaneously, Anisia had befriended Tanya Melendez, aka Lady Soulfly, who had blown our minds with an extraordinary sort of futuristic recalling of ancestral relationship to hair and braiding and all this stuff. Tanya was one of the few people that we brought with us to Rwanda.
AU: I want to talk about Chris Schwagga. I don’t speak a lot about Chris Schwagga, but it’s kind of important. Chris Schwagga is a photographer, a Burundian-Congolese photographer that’s lived in Kigali for a long time. That is with whom we created, and we built the lights.
SW: We didn’t rent or purchase the lights for the film, we built them.
AU: He is an amazing photographer and taker of images on the continent who has a body of work that is already extraordinary. And for me, I was really lucky to be able to be in a discussion with him about how we would render the emotions that we’re trying to convey. And we had countless meetings with the full crew of technicians to literally build ourselves the lights and everything on the set.
I’m so happy to hear this because I love hearing the behind the scenes process and how people get things done, specifically on the continent when there might not be certain things that you have access to that you might want, or it’s more expensive to ship things.
SW: Yeah. And you know, we were being courted. We were being courted by a production house, a rental house in India, Kenya, South Africa, and a rental house in France. Saudi Arabia was just like, “we’ll bring everything, we’ll bring your lights, we’ll bring it, and you have to pay for it.” Why would we bring in eight people to carry our equipment and all this stuff. It just didn’t make any sense. We couldn’t understand why we would arrive there with a budgeted film and and suddenly we are shipping all this money out of the country. And the thing is when these European and American crews go into Rwanda to shoot, they do bring everybody with them. So we had a whole crew of people who normally knew how to do their jobs, but had always subsequently been the third or fourth assistant in all of these crews of films that had passed through. Suddenly in our film we were all heads of departments. That was something that we were very glad to be a part of as well, which is not having these European bosses.
AU: Because you have all of these overqualified people and it’s like the 10th movie that they have been a part of with bigger budget with big lights, big everything. But they never had the opportunity to really assert their knowledge and their craft. And so, it was also very cool to see how the imagination that we had to have because of the conditions, a creativity that arrives with that kind of space. It was very interesting.
This film could be a case study of how to, in my opinion, make an authentic African film, from the crew to the people in front of the camera, to the collaborative efforts of everyone. I think there’s a lack of knowledge of the kind of quality content you can make in Africa with Africans. You don’t have to ship people in. Was there anything during the production, or during any stage of the film that happened that you didn’t necessarily expect that blew you away?
SW: One, to be on the zoom phase of the project is great. Anisia and I were overwhelmed with responsibility while doing this and were pulling our hair out and it was intense for a long, long time. But during these times we would have pleasant surprises. As we were still in the casting phase in Kigali, we’ve worked all day and we’re like, oh, let’s go have beers at this thing. We’re at a little concert party and we meet this DJ who’s like, “I heard you are making this movie. Y’all should cast my mom in this film.” Okay. Well, who’s your mom? And he goes “Cécile Kayirebwa.” And of course, Anisia is squeezing my arm. Like “do you know who that fucking is?’ Cécile Kayirebwa is one of the most beloved and iconic–
SW: –Iconic, singers and poets in contemporary Rwandan history and who is just super, super important.” And, not anyone could have access to her. She’s 75 and she’s never been in a film before. She makes her screen debut in our film. And not only that, we had been translating the text and the dialogue and the lyrics, but Cécile Kayirebwa was like,
“oh no, no, I do my own translations.” And so as a poet to have her come and do her translation of what I had written, and the music I wrote for it was difficult at first. But what she wrote and how she said and sang it was so beautiful.
AU: Imagine how it was on set, you know, for the oldest to young artists, musicians, that were around to have her with us. It was a very, very beautiful, moment for everybody. And it was also connecting the story between between generations and that was beautiful.
SW: Yeah. We didn’t go into that knowing that would be there. There’s been so many layers of surprises.
I do want to ask before we go, is there anything about the film that hasn’t been asked about it yet that you really wish someone would askthat hasn’t come up, something that you really want to share or answer?
AU: There are so many things that we could talk about in terms of doing an authentic story on the continent. I think it is also a film that is hacking into the movie theater soon, but also into the format of cinema itself. The general terms of Africa are a problem, but yeah, the continent—it’s being a part of that moment where we realize that we are also telling stories that are infused by where the fundings are coming. There’s a huge discussion going on right now on that and it’s limiting our narratives.
Now I do think that we can make any narratives that we want. We can talk about any stories that we want and I think the movement of liberation of those stories has to necessarily go through realizing that where the production money comes from is deeply attached to how those films that are told.
SW: My question is like, when are you all truly going to support black cinema?
SW: That’s the question that I want. It’s not a question that should be asked to us. I’m asking that question outward, but you know, the fact of the matter is that if we had gotten funding from France, the film would have been in French, and 90% of the films that come off, the continent are funded by France, and they’re done in the colonial language as opposed to the indigenous languages. And why is “Neptune Frost” in its indigenous language? Because we had to protect who we took money from in order to tell the story we wanted, to tell the way we wanted to tell it in the first place! If we got money from Hollywood, then it would have been an English. Another colonial language, you know what I’m saying? And so, to have films that reflect the authenticity of the creative expression and the movement and the love and the dreams and the imagination of the people is something that is hard fought. It’s something that’s hard fought and needs to be recognized for what it takes to even achieve that.
AU: The authenticity can also be taken in terms of narratives. People want authentic narratives on the continent. We are part of anything that is possible and imaginable. So, we can talk about anything that is possible and imaginable, the difficulties are to seize it ourselves and find the production means to be able to free our narratives.
Thank you for laying that out because I was just going to read a quote that was on your website during the time of your Kickstarter campaign, you asked us to “fuck shit up. With beauty.” This film does fuck shit up because it opens doors for what people think (or assume) is an African film. (They say) “oh, there’s no market for an African sci-fi. There’s no market for, etc.,” And so now you can be like, “no, but look at ‘Neptune Frost’”
SW: Exactly. And it’s not catering to some misrerabilist, you know, expectation or idea that there’s also somehow some weird yearning that people have to see.
Mmhmm. Exactly. As an African filmmaker, I’m very appreciative of this film. I’m appreciative of you as filmmakers. And thank you so much for your time.
About the Author:
Oluwaseun Babalola is a producer and director. Her professional work aims to: one, celebrate Black identity using film, television, and digital media, and two, build sustainable outlets and funding for Black media professionals. She is a community organizer, having hosted and executed panels, events, and conventions in both Nigeria and the United States, and is founder and executive director of KOSINIMA, Inc., a non-profit organization created to provide Black creatives with funding and career support. This includes creating the “KOSINIMA Short Film Grant” for Black womxn filmmakers.