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Making a Revolution: The Afrofuturist World of ‘Neptune Frost’

The filmmakers tell IndieWire about using e-waste, stunning locations, and innovative lighting to craft a different kind of sci-f story for a different kind of century.

Neptune Frost

“Neptune Frost”

Chris Schwagga / courtesy of Kino Lorber

The revolutionary vision of “Neptune Frost” – a politically charged Afrofuturist musical odyssey where Neptune, an intersex runaway, becomes part of an insurgent collective – plays like a social justice dream. For its intrepid filmmakers, hip-hop artist Saul Williams and Rwandan playwright Anisia Uzeyman, the journey to bring their alternative world into reality took nearly a decade and required a band of like-minded artisans capable of translating the narrative’s activist roots into cinematic wonder. “Neptune Frost” isn’t merely a film. It’s an aesthetic statement of intent.

That declaration draws from more than your usual science fiction fare. The Arab spring, African Diaspora movements, centuries of music, and the present blossoming of the continent’s art all influence “Neptue Frost,” a film that fights against exploitation, colonialism, and anti-gay laws.

Following the death of their aunt, Neptune (Elvis “Bobo” Ngabo/Cheryl Isheja) flees from their Rwandan village, crossing bodies of water and rural roads in a trek through a country dominated by a totalitarian force known as The Authority. During their travels, Neptune transforms; Now played by Isheja, they find themselves in another dimension, among techno hackers adorned in keyboards, wires, hard drives, and monitors. There she finds Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), who recently witnessed the death of his brother Tekno (Robert Ninteretse) in the mines where they dug for coltan, the metallic ore that powers cellphones and other high-tech electronics. With Matalusa are a group of rebelling Black folks, like Memory (Eliane Umuhire) and Psychology (Trésor Niyongabo). They want to disrupt binaries, to cease imperialist exportations, and to reimagine society at large.

Every component of “Neptune Frost” – from the colorful and evocative hair and makeup, to the elaborate, yet lived-in production design and costumes, and the songs that power the narrative – moves with breathtaking synergy. The dense ideas at play are inspiring, and the lighting of Black skin is truly enrapturing.

The Costumes of “Neptune Frost”

Costume designer Cedric Mizero needed to fashion looks for two different worlds – a familiar reality and an alternative dimension that used e-waste as its primary fabric and texture. The concepts needed to increasingly evolve to fantastical heights as Neptune ventured toward the otherworld occupied by Matalusa, Memory, and Psychology, but needed some sense of practicality too. “The story was very clear about where it was happening and the way it was happening,” Mizero said. “I grew up reusing things, recycled things. It was more than a lifestyle. We wanted to make something that looked like it was made in the film. Like the actors were the ones that made the costumes.”

The costumes also needed to move in lock-step with the hair and makeup department led by Tanya Melendez. Consequently, the designs became cohesive pieces of art in themselves. “There’s a point between the costume and the makeup and the hair where it’s one costume. It was more like a continuity of everything,” Mizero said.

“Neptune Frost”

Chris Schwagga / courtesy of Kino Lorber

That continuity came together in more than a few unforgettable looks, allowing the surreal dreamlike tone of this world to come to life. When Neptune sleeps, for instance, they’re often visited by the vision of The Wheel Man: A mythical being with white hair buns in the shape of wheels and a giant, neon, kaleidoscopic spinning headdress of bicycle wheels. “I remember when Saul was telling me that we want [The Wheel Man] to be like a dream, you know, to be someone who came from space,” said Mizero. “So I wanted something with a movement that you could feel, like this person is standing somewhere but is not from that place.” The appearance of The Wheel Man ultimately leads to the transformation of Neptune, which the filmmakers wanted the costuming to denote by way of a red dress. “The red dress was a specific ask from the directors. They wanted her to be in red,” said Mizero. “And for me, I was like ‘Maybe we can play with that idea.’”

Uzeyman added: “That red dress was the link to which we would go with Neptune through their transition. It’s not just a dress. It’s the symbol of transformation.”

The Production Design of “Neptune Frost”

Scouting locations was another significant task: “It was extraordinary. It started with Anisia driving the country and dropping pins at places we thought were cool,” explains Williams. They were searching for a mine that could serve as a setting for the opening number where Matalusa’s brother is murdered. After his brother’s death, the workers break out into rhythm chants using drums as their primary communicative device. “The mine was there for a long time. We tried quite a lot of stuff. We were looking for that huge space. And I think the secret of that sequence is what was written in terms of metaphor into the scene of Matalusa’s brother, Tekno, dying,” added Uzeyman.

Neptune Frost

“Neptune Frost”

Chris Schwagga / courtesy of Kino Lorber

For the filmmakers, however, the most hair-raising setting was the otherworldly village composed of computer parts and e-waste, which was still under construction when shooting commenced. Mizero and his group of artisans began crafting the village by first creating a scale model. Then Williams and Uzeyman spent considerable time searching for a plot of land to build on. They then shot for eight or nine days. But when they arrived at the village for the shoot there it “wasn’t ready on the first day of the shoot,” says Williams. “There was a moment of emergency, essentially when the village was supposed to be completed, but it was not. And so there were a few days of shooting there where we could only [show a few angles]. We also had night shoots, right? We would shoot from 6 pm until 6 am and as you were exhausted at 6 am driving to where we were sleeping, we’d see the workers driving, arriving at 6 am, to work during the day to finish building the village.” Despite the nerve-racking predicament, Uzeyman still managed to find a silver lining. “In a way it was great to have a kind of studio type of situation. We knew where the doors and all of those things were as opposed to being on location,” she said.

Lighting Black Skin in “Neptune Frost”

In a film where new worlds are imagined and a unique visual language is assembled from discarded technology, the most inventive component of “Neptune Frost” might be its lighting. Lighting and cinematography techniques have traditionally privileged white actors, to the detriment of how their Black co-stars appeared onscreen. Uzeyman and Williams did not allow such a predicament to happen; instead lighting Black skin in several luminous hues in nighttime shots that challenge outdated conventions. “I’m very happy with that work because it was very intense holding my ground on the way I was thinking it should be,” said Uzeyman. “We went to create a sun and a moon that didn’t have the same colors as a naturalistic sun and moon. From there, we created the reflection of that moon and of that sun to convey the emotions that were demanded by the narrative.” The filmmakers took plenty of risks in their lighting by mixing distinct complementary colors and by playing with shadows in inspiring ways: The skin often adopts a pink, orange, even green glow that speaks to the political and personal transformations experienced by the characters. Which certainly required – considering some of budgetary limitations – intense ingenuity to pull off. “We also had a wonderful camera with a wonderful sensor, which allowed us to push it in very low lights,” Uzeyman said. “We worked with what we had. Meaning that we couldn’t do a full blast. We couldn’t have ceilings. We worked a lot on the shadows.”

"Neptune Frost"

“Neptune Frost”

Chris Schwagga / courtesy of Kino Lorber

In their unconventional lighting techniques, the filmmakers found that they often needed to protect their vision from weary technicians. Considering how often Black actors are poorly lit on screen, particularly in Hollywood productions, their struggle, unfortunately, isn’t surprising. “We were dealing with people, sometimes, who couldn’t always tell the characters apart,” Williams said.”I saw technicians that could easily glaze over it and not realize the omissions that they would make if Anisia were not there.” They were able to execute their vision, to stunning effect, despite the skepticism they encountered in post-production. “So the loving embrace of that skin through the eye is also through the heart and a true appreciation of it,” Williams said.

Uzeyman sees the battles with the lighting as a metaphor for “Neptune Frost,” a film with an unrelenting desire to tell a different kind of story, for a different kind of century; which attempts to imagine a dense universe brimming with philosophies, arts, and thinking that has often been discounted as avant garde or idealistic, or ignored because it didn’t originate in the West. “I’m happy with the resolve because we dared. We really went somewhere where I was like ‘I know it’s impossible. But we gotta do that,’” she said. “There’s so much that we do because we are used to making it that way. The idea is to say: ‘Let’s try. It’s already taking time and energy, [so] let’s try.’”

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