American musician and filmmaker Saul Williams and actor Anisia Uzeyman paid a visit to 180 House last week, where they discussed the making of their well-reviewed Afrofuturist musical, Neptune Frost, and the overall art of storytelling on your own terms. The movie, described by The Guardian as ‘a work of social realism’ follows the story of an intersex hacker’s journey to the realm of Digitaria.
Set in an alternative take on Burundi and filmed in the neighbouring Rwanda – Uzeyman’s native country – Neptune Frost is a visually wondrous amalgamation of themes, ideas and songs from Williams’ 2016 album, MartyrLoserKing. Mixing music with poetry and drama, it challenges everything from technology and western hegemony to sexual identity, while calling out forced labour in pit mines. One of its most impressive factors – and perhaps among the reasons behind its 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – is the way it seamlessly blends multiple languages, with the soundtrack and dialogue jumping between Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English.
It puts forth a utopian future that is smart, curious and beautifully curated, with everything from the costume design to the camera work articulating the film’s main message – one that empowers unionising and the fight against injustices.
Here, Williams and Uzeyman share their key learnings from their joint project, unveiling the secrets to mastering an on-screen musical.
1. Make music your starting point
Williams: ‘Every artist has a personal challenge when creating something. Mine was that I wanted to work on a project that connected all of the individual things that I participate in, from music to poetry. Before we had characters or an arc of the story, we had music. In fact, music helped me map out the arc because the first song I wrote for the project is a song called “Burundi”, which is from my album, MartyrLoserKing. In that song is the mapping out of the story and also the characters – their lives are born through music.’
2. Silence your fear with affirmations
Uzeyman: ‘Working as the director of photography, I was constantly scared to f**k up. To gain confidence, I had to remind myself that I knew how to do what I was asked to do. I wasn’t asked to do something that I can’t or that I’m not experienced in – it’s what I’ve been doing all along and I know how to do it.
‘Being born in Rwanda and the film being shot there meant I had a very particular relationship to the place. As we were in production and I knew the story so well, I realised that nobody else could have done this job in the way [Saul] wanted it and I had this particular understanding of what we were trying to portray.’
3. Trust your gut and do it yourself
Williams: ‘You have to gain this perspective where you think, we can conceptualise this ourselves. We don’t have to wait for this to be shipped here or get permission from there. We can free our imaginations. I didn’t want to answer the typical Hollywood question of “who’s in it?” and be forced to put some A-lister on the cast in order to feed the bottom line.
We are in a time where we have so many platforms to share the many aspects of who we are, as long as we have the courage to do so. Give yourself that challenge to dive a little deeper, to study a little more. We often have the opportunity to start a lot of things, so one challenge that you can give yourself is to see something through to the end and see where it gets you.’
‘Neptune Frost’ is out now.