Rwanda: With ‘Neptune Frost’ Anisia Uzeyman wants the world to listen

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 18 March 2022 18:35

Actress Uzeyman attends photocall to promote movie "Aujourd'hui - Tey" at 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin
Actress Anisia Uzeyman attends a photocall to promote the movie "Aujourd'hui - Tey" at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 10, 2012. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen

'Neptune Frost', one of the most acclaimed independent films of the last year was co-directed and photographed by the Rwandan born actress and filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman.

Since debuting at the Cannes film festival, Neptune Frost, a hard-to-label Afropunk sci-fi musical written and co-directed by Uzeyman’s husband, the American slam poet and musician Saul Williams has screened at topflight international festivals like Sundance, Toronto and New York.

The film will be released internationally on 3 June, completing a circuitous journey that was first introduced to the public as a Kickstarter campaign in 2018. “It has been great to see the industry embracing this film.” Uzeyman tells The Africa Report.  She says: “This is a film we made very independently by ourselves and to be able to see it travel like this and be seen, has been beautiful.”

Filmed on location in the hills of Rwanda, a stand-in for the present and futuristic version of Burundi where the story is set, Neptune Frost is a unique and original presentation. The film follows two characters, Neptune, an intersex hacker fleeing sexual violence, and a coltan miner, Matalusa, who is mourning the gruesome murder of his brother. They come into contact with a band of student activists and deliberate real-world concerns like big tech, freedom of expression and the exploitation of resources.

The film privileges free flowing exchange of ideas relating to its thematic concerns ahead of any plot development. “Young people worldwide are demanding the same things that we talk about in the film, and these are universal concerns, but we don’t always take into account that those discussions are also happening in places like Rwanda or Burundi. I wondered, what would it be like to tell the story of these deliberations from the inside instead of the outside. […] how do we propose our take on these issues instead of being told what the take is?” Uzeyman says.

‘I have been telling stories my whole life’

Born Anisziya Uwizeyimana in February 1975 in Rwanda’s southern region, the actress, playwright and filmmaker was raised in Europe by a Belgian family. A childhood ambition of becoming an actress led her to the Théâtre national de Bretagne in Rennes, France, where she studied acting, beginning her career in the theatre.

When opportunities weren’t forthcoming, Uzeyman got creative and began to write and direct her own stories, centering narratives of people like herself. She opened and ran a theatre in Paris and then moved into cinema. “I have been telling stories my whole life […]. I haven’t really done anything else but explore all my artistic interests.” Uzeyman says.

It comes from a desire to speak from Rwanda, for Rwanda and also for the world, so that everybody is able to identify themselves in this part of the world that you are not usually invited to enter.

Even when she divides her time between Paris and the United States, Uzeyman remains, very much, a child of Rwanda. She admits that her relationship with the country is often complicated given its history. “It is a very interesting thing for every immigrant, that question of where your heart is and what is linking you to a place, especially one that isn’t the easiest of places to exist in,” she says.

As a result, Neptune Frost is profoundly rooted in Uzeyman’s origins and her desire to share the love that she has for the country; its landscape, culture, music and history. The film also represents a path for her to assert her presence in her community while processing the big questions of identity and personhood.

She surmises: “It comes from a desire to speak from Rwanda, for Rwanda and also for the world so that everybody is able to identify themselves in this part of the world that you are not usually invited to enter. On some level, we are all the same.”

‘Libraries of experience’

The rebellious current that runs through Neptune Frost can be traced to its origins. The film is the latest entry into the multifaceted MartyrLoserKing project dreamed up by Williams. The project has so far delivered three music albums and a graphic novel.

The idea for what would become Neptune Frost was born in Dakar. Uzeyman and Williams met while working as actors on Senegalese director Alain Gomis’ 2012 film, Tey. Williams wrote the screenplay, but considers the project a real collaboration where they both brought on their strengths and unique perspectives. He says of working with Uzeyman: “We both met each other with libraries of experience and a genuine desire to read through each other’s libraries and to share that experience. There was some sort of synergistic understanding that we had.”

It was [also] important for me to look at Black people, my people in a very specific and beautiful way.

The 2015 political crisis in Burundi made it impossible to film in the country, so the decision was made to move the shoot to Rwanda. This was easier said than done though, as Rwanda’s film industry is still in its infancy and Uzeyman soon found that she had to source for practically every element needed to make the film.

She was fortunate enough to be loaned a high-definition ALEXA mini camera by an ARRI executive scouting the area for possible business opportunities, but it did not arrive until days before principal photography commenced. In the meantime, she was dealing with doubtful investors who did not understand why a film set in Africa and with African characters would require such high-tech gear. Couldn’t she just work with an iPhone? Uzeyman’s first film, Dreamstates, was shot with an iPhone.

However, Uzeyman was adamant about ensuring that her film looked a certain way. “I was insistent on having a very high standard camera. I wanted a large format machine that is capable of going low in terms of light. More than 60% of the story was happening at night so I needed high sensors. […[ it was [also] important for me to look at Black people, my people in a very specific and beautiful way,” she says.

A sense of ownership

International productions that have worked in Rwanda would usually fly in all their resources, with local crew working as fourth or fifth level assistants at the bottom of the food chain. Uzeyman reversed this trend by working with local Africans in the major departments – from heads of departments to assistants – and sourced all of her needs locally. This was in order to return some agency and sense of ownership to the creatives who were toiling anonymously.

She led her team to build gears: they visited factories to purchase lead panels and aluminium for lighting setups and built a fictional world from scratch. Uzeyman looks back saying: “I won’t say that it was easy.” She exhales, then continues in a matter-of-fact way that belies the enormity of what was achieved. “It was a crazy adventure, but we had the energy and were possessed by the desire to tell the story,” she says.

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