A scene from “Neptune Frost,” screening at Space this weekend. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

“They use our sweat and blood to communicate with each other but have never heard our voice.”

That’s a lyric from a song in the mesmerizing 2021 film “Neptune Frost,” which is playing at Space in Portland on Friday and Sunday. Co-directed by multimedia artist Saul Williams and Rwandan filmmaker and actress Anisia Uzeyman, “Neptune Frost” is a dizzying and intoxicating mix of Afrofuturist science fiction, musical, love story and experimental visuals. It’s also a bracing and uncompromising rallying cry against imperialism, colonialism and exploitation in Africa.

Coltan is a mineral without which your cellphones and computers would not exist. It’s also concentrated almost entirely in areas of Africa, like the Rwandan mine where “Neptune Frost” begins. We see workers swinging picks, the rhythms of their labor coalescing into a song that transforms into a furious dirge once one worker, pausing to examine a chunk of the precious mineral, is beaten to death by one of the armed guards surrounding the pit.

Coltan mining is mostly done by hand, for pennies, with workers deliberately disconnected from the wealth and power they produce. One miner, Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), the brother of the slain man, cries out that all this toil and horror represent, “All that you pay not to see,” his wailing, angry song indicting the viewer as he flees the mine. In another village, a woman is buried, the local priest chanting platitudes while a young man claims, “I was born in my 23rd year.”

That is Neptune, played first by Elvis Ngabo and then by Cheryl Isheja. Neptune flees as well, once the priest makes unwanted advances, leading to violence. What follows are the parallel journeys of Matalusa and Neptune as they, after many trials, end up in the same place, a strange encampment in the hills of Burundi, where characters with names like Memory, Psychology, Innocent and Elohel (sound it out) have built shelters, clothes and even prosthetic limbs cobbled together from discarded and abandoned electronic waste.

“Neptune Frost” is a fable, but hardly a facile or comforting one. Powered by the songs and poetry of the dazzlingly multitalented Williams (star of 1998’s exhilarating spoken word poetry indie “Slam”), the film traffics in dreams and symbols without dissolving into the self-indulgent mush other such experimental projects can. Part of the reason is Uzeyman’s cinematography, as she relishes the uniformly excellent performers’ dark and glistening skin tones, underscoring how poorly served Black actors continue to be by mainstream photography. And then there’s the music, weaving in and out through conversations and debates as Matalusa, Neptune and the other escaped miners who’ve come to join them in their possibly other-dimensional refuge discover that Neptune has the ability to tap into every scrap of that information crackling through the miners’ hard-earned coltan.

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Naming their commune MartyrLoserKing, the group’s hacking efforts begin to disrupt and undermine the placid electronic existence of the rest of the world, while Matalusa and Neptune’s growing connection is revealed to be the source of the group’s power to make the world, finally, hear their voices. (“We are not hidden,” one lyric stresses, “We are ignored.”)

Neptune, upon entering the village through a portal in the forest, finally emerges as their true self, an intersex goddess of a new age of liberation and righteous anger. One character, confronting another for judging Neptune’s gender identity, upbraids, “Was gender so crucial to your desire for intimacy?,” before sadly summing up the bigotry of toxic masculinity. “Because they were born boys and raised to uphold an idea of themselves that will not sustain them.” Amen.

It’s all thrillingly strange and beautiful, in the way of a great epic poem and a great science fiction film. (It’s like a hybrid of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and “The Matrix’s” Zion, but better.) As Neptune’s powers emerge, the screen is disrupted in bursts of psychedelic electro-static and swirling, pulsating colors. The all-too-real scenes of government oppression, Western exploitation and fascist violence surrounding the characters is heightened to unnerving degree by “Neptune Frost’s” ingenious world-building. Odd lingo (“Unanimous goldmine” is a common greeting), unexplained technology and fascinating costumes (all twisted wires and cables, and a coat made entirely of computer keys) combine form and function just as the film’s characters repurpose the detritus of the digital age.

There’s music and dance, and little snatches of dialogue that pulled me up short with their poetic weight. “To imagine hell is privilege,” one character notes, succinctly expressing an entire history in five words. Multiple languages weave through the story – Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French, and even English, as when one character spits, “So (expletive) Mr. Google!” during a furious song – and while “Neptune Frost” is a fable, it never allows us to simply drift along. We’re confronted. We’re implicated.

The screenings are co-presented by Space and Portland-based arts organization Indigo Arts Alliance, which lists part of its mission as “addressing the underrepresentation of Black and Brown artists.” “Neptune Frost” couldn’t be a better representation of that goal, honestly. It’s also a remarkable, mind-expanding and thoroughly entertaining movie.

“Neptune Frost” is screening at Space on Friday and Sunday, both at 7 p.m. Tickets are $9, $7 for Space members. Which you really should be.

Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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