New African Cinema: ‘Neptune Frost’ & ‘Saloum’ Rock the Festivals
by Alex Billington
September 20, 2021
“Stories about heroes travel faster than bullets.” There are two new films from Africa playing film festivals this year that just so happen to be two of the most creative, unique, and entertaining discoveries in cinema all year. We’re lucky we get to experience these films this year. The first is Neptune Frost, which initially premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. I watched it in Cannes but didn’t write about it on here yet, knowing I will be raving about it whenever it gets a release. The second is a film called Saloum, set in Senegal, and it just premiered at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival this month. Both of these honestly deserve the “instant cult classic” label. Not only is it always exciting to have unique cinema from Africa playing at major festivals like Cannes & Toronto, both films are awesome creations with fun stories that cleverly pull from African mythology and culture. I need to take a moment to highlight both.
I watched Saloum as part of the Toronto Film Festival, viewing a digital screener from home. Neptune Frost is also playing at TIFF this year, and will play at the New York Film Festival and London Film Festival. With both films premiering at fall fests this last week, I thought it would be good to write about both together with some quick thoughts on each one. Most importantly, take any chance you can to go see these films – it’s worth it! The best way to watch would be with a festival crowd in a cinema, either one is a worthwhile ticket.
Saloum is a neo-western thriller from a Congolese filmmaker named Jean Luc Herbulot, who studied in film editing in Paris, then made his feature debut with the 2014 film Dealer. It takes place in the West African nation of Senegal, on the delta known as Saloum. The film follows a trio of mercenaries escorting a foreigner drug dealer through dangerous lands. Not only is the film packed with vibrant, often neon, style expressed through colors and light and distinct costumes, but it switches up genres part of the way in and dips a bit into action horror, right as things really get going in the middle. It’s only 84 minutes and moves a bit slowly like a western at times, but I was fully invested in following this group on their voyage to wherever it leads them. It’s a dope film and I’m glad I took the time to discover it, now I can spread the word about it.
To recap: Saloum is another blindingly original film from Africa that should be rocking cinemas. See it any chance you get. So much about it is almost instantly iconic just in look and style, giving us a refreshing vibe of what a modern African western looks like. It’s clearly made with a tiny budget but that only makes it more impressive seeing how much they pulled off. Even if it is a bit rough around the edges, I enjoyed so much of it, all the originality and creativity on display non-stop. The entire cast kicks ass, lead by the three Hyenas members: Yann Gael, Roger Sallah, and Mentor Ba. And it was especially nice to see characters speak entirely in sign language. It’s the kind of film that as soon as it’s over, I immediately wanted to share it with everyone else that loves top notch genre films. To enjoy something new and fresh in international cinema.
Neptune Frost rocks!! The other gem. It is the African tekno-musical film of the century!! Co-directed by filmmakers Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams, with a screenplay by Saul Williams, this was filmed on location in Rwanda. It’s a rather trippy, or perhaps mesmerizing, sci-fi musical about an intersex African hacker, a coltan miner, and the virtual marvel born as a result of their union, in what is essentially a gender-fluid story about where our technology comes from. It’s hard to even describe, but that’s part of the puzzle of putting this one together because everything else about it is glorious. African miners mining for precious metals to build technology begin to try and unite and plan an uprising using their own technology to do so. There’s so much symbolism and so many metaphors packed in that it gets overwhelming at times. But it’s redeemed with brilliant songs like “Fuck Mr. Google” and all of the design work in every costume and object.
I honestly think this film is so incredibly ahead of its time that it’s hard to even comprehend at this moment. I feel like it’s going to be rediscovered in a decade and become the inspirational uprising sci-fi cult classic it’s destined to be. But right now? It might just slip through the cracks. If any of this sounds interesting so far, then you have to watch this as soon as possible. I do admit at times it’s a bit of a confusing film, but the creativity is so out of this world it’s in a whole other dimension. Just to imagine then craft something as spectacular as this kind of Afrofuturism electronica musical about revolutionaries fighting capitalism and poverty from the ground up. It’s pure genius and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did. Watch it to hear all the songs. Watch it just to hang with the bicycle man. Watch it for all the other amazing costumes and make-up. Watch it anyhow and bask in its tekno-genius mind-melting excellence. “Unanimous Goldmine!!”
For more info about Neptune Frost, visit Quinzaine des Realisateurs or head to Mubi. For more info about Saloum, visit TIFF or Mubi. And check your local film festival to see if they’re playing either of these films.