This poster really doesn't do the visual aspects of this flick
dirs: Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman
I was excited to see this, having heard a lot about it, and the chance came up during the recent Melbourne International Film Festival to watch it in a cinema, so I went for it.
Huh. I was left a fair bit baffled by the end as to why it has the rep that it has, at least on the festival circuit. It’s reviewed exceptionally well, and, I just can’t see it, whatever it is that everyone else is seeing.
It has been described as an Afrofuturist / gender fluid exploration of contemporary themes and colonisation and its discontents, and that’s all well and good, but what we get for most of the film’s running time is a number of people wearing discarded bits of tech on their clothing, singing the occasional song, having circular conversations about why they deserve more from the bounty the rest of the world has derived through mining their country, and then that’s about it.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to think about in terms of all the elements shining through the various characters. Some characters die right at the start, to inspire other characters to start moving, and others change gender (and actor, because why not?) for no real discernible reason.
Okay. And this flick is mostly set in Burundi, but all filmed in Rwanda, and it’s nice to watch a flick from Rwanda that isn’t about the massacre in the 1990s that killed so, so many people. That being said, a genocide that killed a million people isn’t something you forget about. It pokes through, here and there, into the narrative. You can’t talk about the extraction of resources from a country like Rwanda or Burundi without talking about the legacy of colonialism or the international appetite for fuelling its own technological progress upwards and onwards at the expense of the people at the bottom who are the ones, you know, mining the stuff and dealing with the environmental devastation afterwards, if they even survive.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for a documentary, or a manifesto / treatise: it’s certainly spells out where it’s coming from, and what people represent. I mean, for crying out loud, most of the characters have purely functional names like Motherboard, Ehlohel (it’s really LOL), Psychology, Memory, both Neptunes, and Matalusa (which is really a combination of “martyr” and “loser”, which ends up being extended further to Martyr Loser King?), but what the aspiration is, the tremendous hope is that all these people can transcend their mortal constraints, both societal and of their own flesh, through free access to technology and music (I’m guessing, since there’s are so many musical scenes, and one of the directors is a musician / composer) to some higher plane that exists beyond the racism and colonialism of our actual contemporary world.
I mean, don’t we all. It would be nice if such things could happen, instead of entrenching existing poverty and structural racism and labeling it economic progress, but what are you going to do? All our new mobiles need coltan. Where are you going to get your new smartphone from every year, if not from the back-breaking labour of the poorest people in countries just like these?
When the various characters start gravitating towards each other, some by catching a bus, some by walking, some by seeming to step in between time and space, they find a new place where they are welcome, safe, and where everything can be hacked. I would humbly suggest that, in between singing songs, the kind of hacking they’re talking about is a kind of transformation. That we should not be bound by the strictures of the past, by the mistakes of the past, in any realm, both in terms of access to the benefits of technology and in terms of transforming one’s own gender into a more fluid form.
I can’t pretend to know what they’re talking about when they say or imply things like this. I know one character goes from being played by a male actor to being played by a female actor, but I don’t know if that was through the magic of love, or song, or technology, or Afrofuturistic aspiration.
Instead of greeting people with “Hello”, in this flick past a point people great others with “Unanimous Goldmine”. Perhaps rightly people could respond with a confused sounding “how is it?” The follow up to that is “Glorious”. So that could sound a bit baffling, but I’m imagining that it has something to do with if all the peoples of the different nations of Africa got to experience the full benefit of the technological advances their resources allow, it would be a shining day for all, and not just an anointed few.
But that’s just me spitballing. There’s a lot of diatribe masquerading as dialogue in this flick, and it’s delivered in a number of languages, and a lot of it is obscure and a lot of it is so pretentious that it only could have come from an American crowbarring his highfalutin ideas into the mouths of people delivering them awkwardly. But that’s not the same as me disagreeing with the central points: Of course I agree with all that is thought, said and expressed here. What continues to happen in many if not most African countries is an ongoing crime that only partially is covered with arguments about colonialism and post-colonialism and de-colonising the continent. The bigger argument, the more simplistic one just comes down to greed.
The previous arguments that used to be made about why it was justified to extract all the natural resources from a place and leave the (surviving) locals to deal with the environmental consequences was “economic prosperity and growth benefits everyone. Plus we’ll build them a football stadium if they don’t protest too much.”
Now the argument has become “in order to transition away from the use of fossil fuels and other harmful mining by-products, we have to be allowed to mine your lithium, your coltan and your other minerals in order to build up the renewable energy industry. If you stop us from mining then you must hate the environment and be a fucking climate denialist!!!”
Wow, well, okay. This film makes that explicit, but tries to filter that through the lens of people trying to rise up and use the tools of their own oppression to free themselves and free the world, but it’s expressed, like all important things should be, through song, incredibly elaborate costumes, some dance routines, deliberately dated computer images that look like they were designed on a Commodore 64, and a bunch of performers chanting “Fuck you Mr Google!” straight at the camera.
Take that, Mr Google, as you sit in your fancy palace on the Moon!
The performers are not the problem here. They are, I get the feeling, mostly musical performers, in some cases rappers maybe, the rest are maybe dancers and / or models. This isn’t a flick that really feels like an actor’s showcase, or at least it’s not a script written with how the performances are going to look and sound in mind. Maybe it would have worked better as a stage musical, though I say this with no idea as to how much would be involved in doing that.
It’s just there are a lot of scenes of people standing around in a tight unit saying something one after the other, and it often feels completely disconnected even from the world which it’s trying to depict. I get that it’s some wish-fulfillment tech-fantasy, but when people do stuff to the collective, it comes literally out of nowhere, and it’s shocking because you’re thinking “oh, okay, the “bad” powers that be are probably the Americans”, without it really making much sense.
Visually, despite what must have been a minuscule budget, this flick is a treat to look at. The songs and music sound great. The costuming is just insane. It’s rare that I even ever notice the costuming in a film, but, and this is going to sound really strange coming from me, but in a lot of ways the costuming and the makeup design are the highlights of the film.
Ideas-wise, well, I feel like I “got” the point, but I still felt a bit baffled by how this has wowed so many critics, who, other than stroking their beards and clucking their tongues, probably had nothing further to opine about these matters. Yes, very serious matters, hmm.
Just like me. It’s an interesting oddity for me at this stage, but maybe if I watch it a couple more times I might get more out of it.
6 times Neptune Frost is so baffling but in a good(?) way out of 10
“One justice algorithm. One little Black girl algorithm brings it to life.” – um, okay - Neptune Frost