When filmmakers Saul Williams and Anisia created Uzeyman Neptune Frost, they imagined telling a boundless story that stretched the depths of time and place, while being representative of people in the black diaspora. But also, as 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, assuming 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 l know that story.’”
While the heart of the story is traditional, the creators’ storytelling approach is far from what is commonly seen. The film, which opened on June 10 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is set in Burundi in eastern Central Africa. It’s a sci-fi, afrofuturistic tale that’s also a musical that takes place in the past, present, and future, while also spanning the broad depths of identity and innovation.
That theme of expanded representation extends to the language and music of the film. Uzeyman, who is Rwandan, and Williams, who is American, worked as co-directors and decided together to make a film that would embody an intertwining of language and culture. Characters speak in Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English, combined with English subtitles.
“Anisia and I started conceptualizing this project, basically as an answer to the question of what we dream of seeing on screen,” Williams says. “And of course that means the kind of story, the kind of faces, the subject.”
For the duo, everything from the costumes and makeup to the music relies 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 points of view, how we project ourselves into storytelling. † † and also record what is important to us,” says Uzeyman.
Still, as new as the idea may seem, there’s 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 current selves and our ancestral selves, and the connections between that and technology, and realizing that we are the technology that moves things,” says Williams.
In the film, a group of escaped miners form a collective of computer hackers with the aim of taking over an authoritarian regime. There is a theme that people themselves are valuable resources and that the regime exploits them, as well as the natural resources of the region – a real problem, a problem that we see in our past and in our present. What feels very futuristic, however, is how a struggle against power can be fought in an imaginative future, when advanced technology and cosmic forces collide.
105 minutes Until 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 spirit, Neptune Frost is also a fairy tale – a story with lively characters who do not fall into the old-fashioned domain of gender and identity. It’s the opposite of what the filmmakers say is usually visible.
“We think about our kids and what we want them to see,” Williams says. “And I think the world of storytelling has so much more to offer than the traditional Disney story, or the traditional Hollywood story, or the traditional Western story.”
And this new story is one that’s much more accessible to everyone.
“What’s really nice is that we feel like people see themselves out there,” Uzeyman says. “They see themselves in it, wherever they are, wherever their background is, and to be invited into that community and make community with that film is, I think, the most beautiful thing we’ve seen.”