Directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman have merged their visions of art and activism to produce their latest film, “Neptune Frost”. This timely musical honors the mining workers whose lives are challenged every day in the acquisition of natural resources. The film begins on a mining site in Burundi, a small country in Central-East Africa, rich in rare-earth oxides, cobalt and copper; minerals needed to build our phones, computers and other devices.
The natural beauty of lush, green mountaintops, hills, and sub-saharan trees provide comfort and better adaptation for the spirits, as if they never left their rightful home. Copper wires hang from village members’ ears who can sense frequencies and glitches from the former world they once were a part of, listening for feedback to find the right opportunity for vindication. These spirits were once workers who died or were killed on earth, as a result of coltan mining or demanding human rights under these conditions. Instead of eternal rest, they are sent to a digital purgatory of hoarded old technology waiting to pursue revenge against the living.
Each song is a reminder of whose hands are responsible for modern technology. In English and Kirundi, the spirits sing catchy, thoughtful lyrics that describe how they each arrived and their worker solidarity. Matalusa, played by Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse, collaborated with Willams on the songs and sound production. Nostalgic samples of old cell phone ringtones and 808 tracks are the dark reminders of where these devices go. These devices of yesteryear have their own death, to become reused once again in this world.
The actors’ involvement in the production of this film is one of my favorite aspects of “Neptune Frost”. Neptune is played by two cis-gendered actors: Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo. Regarding inclusion of gender-neutral characters in film or television, it is too often that the characters’ gender transformation is portrayed by cis-gendered actors, which is offensive to most trans people and belittles the gender transformation process.
In regards to this film, the transformation of Neptune shows the awkward, self-recognising stage of gender fluidity and lack of acceptance from cis-gendered people. Speaking from personal experience, as an open Non-Binary person, men have laughed at my menswear outfits. In my face. Not in my face. Still close enough. It’s audible and it’s an unfortunate reminder that my Assigned-Female-At-Birth body does not encapsulate enough masculinity to validate its existence. This awkward stage was captured well through Ngabo’s enactment of Neptune. Personally, it was an accurate and familiar feeling, compared to the spirit represented in the afterlife via Isheja’s enactment, where Neptune’s unconscious body was brought to a room of static-receptive televisions, satellites and ungathered wires after the accident. Lying on a spinning table covered by french suited playing cards, Neptune (Isheja) wakes up and sees their reflection; in the most divine feminine embodiment, they could imagine for themselves to live true to the body that perfectly fits the identity of their soul.
In 2021, Burundi suspended several international rare-earth mining companies due to the lack of funding received by companies in exchange for their resources. This film has the potential to ignite and inspire change in the mining industry, where thousands of unprotected workers put their lives on the line. I hope this is not the end of Williams’ and Uzeyman’s effort to bring this issue to light, as it speaks to the dark side of technological advancement.