When filmmakers Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman created Neptune Frost, they imagined telling a limitless story that stretched the depths of time and place, while being representative of people across the Black diaspora. But also, like a Burundian elder told them during the filming process, it’s a story that’s more like a full circle.
“We told her the story of the film, thinking that we were telling something that was really modern and provocative,” Williams says. “And her response was, ‘That’s a very old Burundian folktale: We know this story, I know that story.’”
Although the heart of the story is traditional, the creators’ storytelling approach lands far from what is often seen. The film, which opened June 10 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, takes place in Burundi in east-central Africa. It’s a sci-fi, Afrofuturistic story that is also a musical that takes place in the past, present, and future, while also spanning the wide depths of identity and innovation.
That theme of expansive representation extends to the film’s language and music. Uzeyman, who is Rwandan, and Williams, who is American, worked as co-directors and collectively decided to create a film that would embody a meshing of language and culture. Characters speak in Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French, and English—paired with English subtitles.
“Anisia and I began conceptualizing this project, basically, in response to the question of what we dream of seeing on screen,” Williams says. “And that, of course, means the kind of story, the kinds of faces, the subject matter.”
For the duo, everything from the costumes and makeup to the music leans on that imagination.
“It was the desire to see ourselves as we see ourselves out there, to dream ourselves as we dream ourselves from all vantage points of view, how we project ourselves into storytelling . . . and also capturing what matters to us,” Uzeyman says.
Still, as new as the idea may seem, there is an intentional connection to make the film feel familiar.
“The film is a celebration of love and music, through the power of understanding the connections between our present selves and our ancestral selves, and the connections between that and technology and realizing that we are the technology that moves things,” Williams says.
In the film, a group of escaped miners forms a computer hacker collective with the goal of taking over an authoritarian regime. There is a theme that people, themselves, are high-value resources and the regime is exploiting them as well as the region’s natural resources—a real-world issue, one that we see in our past and in our present. What feels very futuristic, though, is how a fight against power could be fought in an imaginative future, when advanced technology and cosmic forces collide.
105 min. Through June 23 at Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; $12 general admission, $6 Film Center members; www.siskelfilmcenter.org/neptune-frost
And in that vein, Neptune Frost is also a fairy tale—one that has characters who are vibrant and don’t fall into antiquated realms of gender and identity. It’s the opposite of what the filmmakers say is usually visible.
“We’re thinking of our children and what we’d like them to be able to see,” Williams says. “And I think that the world of storytelling has so much more to give than the traditional Disney narrative, or the traditional Hollywood narrative, or the traditional Western narrative.”
And this new narrative is one that is much more accessible to everyone.
“What’s very beautiful is that we feel that people see themselves out there,” Uzeyman says. “They see themselves in it, wherever they are, from wherever is their background, and to be invited into that community and to make community with that film is, I think, the most beautiful thing that we’ve seen.”