Toward the end of the 20th century, the British novelist and critic John Berger insisted on the importance of what he called “pockets of resistance” — small-scale efforts to oppose global systems of domination and exploitation, or at least to imagine alternatives. The possibility of change, Berger suggested, could be found not in grand revolutionary movements but in local practices, including the making and contemplation of art.
I thought of Berger after seeing “Neptune Frost,” a strange and captivating new feature by Saul Williams, an American musician, writer and artist, and Anisia Uzeyman a Rwandan filmmaker. The movie, an Afrofuturist fantasia that is also a musical, a science-fiction parable and a hacker manifesto, depicts a pocket of resistance in the form of a community of African rebels. Surrounded by political violence, economic injustice and cultural alienation, they try to secure a space where imagination and solidarity can flourish. The challenges are formidable, but their commitment is part of what makes “Neptune Frost” moving as well as mind-bending.
It is also a pocket of resistance in its own right, insofar as the act of making the film — and for that matter thinking about it — amounts to a critique of the way things are. The main characters are Matalusa (Kaya Free), who works alongside his brother in an open-pit mine in Burundi, digging up coltan, a mineral that helps power the world’s cellphones. After his brother is killed, Matalusa flees. At the same time, Neptune (Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo), described by the filmmakers as “an intersex runaway,” escapes from an attempted sexual assault. Their journeys finally converge in the hacker encampment. (“Frost” is the name of a magical, brightly colored messenger bird.)
The plot of “Neptune Frost” is loose and suggestive. This isn’t a tight, tidy allegory of capitalism and colonialism so much as a collage of vivid images, sounds and words that punch the movie’s themes like hashtags. Williams and Uzeyman marry anarchist politics with anarchist aesthetics, making something that feels both handmade and high-tech, digital and analog, poetic and punk rock.
The hackers’ all-purpose greeting and slogan is “unanimous gold mine.” I don’t know how the phrase sounds in Kinyarwanda or Kirundi (two of the languages spoken in the film), but in English it invokes both collective ownership of wealth and all-purpose optimism. Somehow, it captures the unsentimental, exuberant energy of the film, which is a treasury of ideas and provocations — a pocket full of possibilities.
Not rated. In Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.