A Poet’s Idea of a Dream

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Dreams show us doorways to another universe, divine connections to gods, or just re-fabricated visions of our real lives. The images flutter away, yet they captivate us for the third of our lives that we spend asleep. For centuries, dreams have fascinated philosophers, scientists, and artists, who questioned their origins and meanings from as early as 4,000 years ago in the Epic of Gilgamesh to Greek philosophy and modern medicine. The creators of two recent, enthralling films—Neptune Frost (2022) and Strawberry Mansion (2021)—also call on dreams in their dystopian science fiction, presenting provocative and fluid narratives with dynamic characters, beautiful shots of landscapes, and curious costuming. Dreams, in these films, hold the power to reimagine one’s self. 


Neptune Frost screencap courtesy Kino Lorber

Neptune Frost

Directed by Anisia Uzeyman, the Rwandan actress and playwright, and Saul Williams, the multi-disciplinary artist and rapper, Neptune Frost is a striking poetic call to arms in an afro-futurist, anti-colonial musical. (Williams also wrote and composed the script.) Messages of awakening spread through dreams and glitchy technology as disenfranchised workers and university students find their way to a mountain enclave in Burundi filled with seemingly abandoned technological devices. The journey is one of transformation and understanding, with a focus on two key characters—Matalusa (who becomes known partway through the film as Martyr Loser King; played by Bertrand Nintereste) and Neptune (played first by Elvis Ngabo and then by Cheryl Isheja)—who intertwine metaphysically to hack virtual global systems through their dreams. While the film is science fiction and fantasy, the exploitation and resource extraction it presents are real and urgent problems everywhere, especially in the country where the story takes place. 

We drift through ethereal birds-eye-view shots of landscapes, mines, and the skyline, used as serene transitions among tumultuous images of a growing uprising against The Authority—an ambiguous governmental entity whose agenda is carried out by police—and the enclave, which feels like an alternate dimension. Frost, a white dove with bright orange markings, leads miners and other individuals to the enclave, like the dove with the olive branch signaled new land after the Biblical great flood. And like a cocoon, the mountains, a seemingly membranous entity, transform them, revealing their true nature and interconnection. 

As the film progresses, the characters’ physical appearances do too. Initially, their clothing (designed by Cedric Mizero) is simple, made of solid blue and gray polyester, with vivid pops of colored zippers. But as the miners spend more time in the community, they organically manifest wire jewelry, rocks, and motherboards on their bodies and clothes. At one point, Matalusa’s hair (styled by Tanya Melendez) becomes adorned with golden wire like a crown, and blue electrical wires protrude from his ears, alluding to the growth of the village as a living entity.


Neptune Frost screencap courtesy Kino Lorber

The characters are blooming into hybrid beings reminiscent of cyborgs. A deeper invisible connection grows between them and Potolo the Avatar—an Oracle type of character who appears only in dreams, dispensing prophecies through riddles. It is as if a collective unconscious techno-celestial force, like a mycelial network, spread through them. The metamorphosis of Neptune, an intersex runaway also called the Motherboard, from a masculine character into a more feminine-presenting one is visceral and potent. Neptune is not bound by binaries. I’m reminded of another ghostly film transformation: of Josie (Tessa Thompson) into a plant inside the Shimmer in Annihilation (2018), based on the novel by Jeff Vandermeer, which also challenges the singularity of humanity. As an entity, the enclave in Neptune Frost is less actively threatening, and it facilitates the community’s awakening and fight for liberation. 

Memory, another member of the enclave, focuses on raising consciousness about their plight as exploited workers. The birds and landscape witness their suffering, underscoring a globalized capitalist world where consumers are often ignorant of the ramifications of their technological devices. Neptune Frost packages these themes in fantasy, but the exploitation of miners is an atrocious reality

Through a crescendo of conversations, the people realize that not only are the miners ignored, but they are also actively murdered. Dialogue, sung and spoken in Kinyarwanda, Swahili, French, and English, is interspersed, and several songs of the miners are about working conditions and ignorance; Matalusa even directly calls out “Mr. Google.” Near the final scene, Matalusa sings, “iPhone on. Mountains gone. Cars on…. Freedom gone…” in short rhythmic sentences, rough yet forceful. An overall ethereal, electronic, and energetic quality overlays the melodies and sounds of the film, designed and composed with specificity.  

In the final scene, momentarily, it seems like everything is lost. But Neptune, breaking the fourth wall, hauntingly addresses the movie’s audience in English.  Her message is clear: neither border walls nor firewalls can stop the spread of the resistance, and the flame of their revolution won’t be extinguished. 


Strawberry Mansion screencap courtesy Music Box Films

Strawberry Mansion

This science-fiction romantic-adventure story centers on James Preble, a stoic dream tax auditor, who is sent to audit Arabella Isadora’s dreams, and in the process discovers that corporations have implanted advertisements within them. Directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley (who also plays the part of Preble), the movie stars Penny Fuller and Grace Glowicki as older and younger versions of Arabella. Dan Deacon composed the soundtrack. 

Preble’s dream scenery shifts from claustrophobic to carefree as he comes to know Bella and begins using her ad-blocking invention. Stuffed within a small magenta room with his ad buddy bringing him Cap’n Kelly fried chicken and Red Rocket soda, his dreams feel suffocating. Bella’s dreams are outdoors in fields and forests, where a maple tree is taxed at $0.08, and a bison $0.25. In one instance, Preble’s blue hologram watches Bella hug a humanoid figure fully draped in long, yellow-green grass. Tactile and tender, the embrace is intimate with soft synth keys drifting through the scene, also characteristic of Bella’s other dreams. The idea that the individuals are required to record and pay taxes on their dreams is wonderfully absurd, and certainly a little scary, as this government audits and rewatches some people’s dreams like thought police. 


Strawberry Mansion screencap courtesy Music Box Films

As physical transformations occur within Preble’s adventures, he becomes more aware of his own authority and free from corporate influence. We discover that he was the figure in the aforementioned grass suit, and within his version of this dream, he reads a poem to Bella: “I have loved you in many lifetimes, in many forms, in many places through many storms…” The poem precedes their imagined life on a small island and foreshadows their future journey within Preble’s dreams where they become beets, comets, and balloons. While Neptune Frost uses dreams as a mechanism to connect to global systems, Strawberry Mansion uses dream imagery as a focal point that feels more surreal, irrational, and unexpected. 

To an extent, the narrative requires a suspension of disbelief as time is nonlinear and the boundary between real and unreal constantly blurs. The love and adventure story, which at times feels circuitous and knotted, is focused on their intimate experience of the larger problem of corporate influence. At times, Preble’s dream emulates a damsel in distress trope as he is trying to find and save Bella, but she proves to oversee her own destiny and, in the end, he needs to save himself first. 


Strawberry Mansion screencap courtesy Music Box Films

Both Neptune Frost and Strawberry Mansion are visionary masterpieces that have the potential to become cult classics. They have a DIY feel, and their poetic nature is otherworldly, hinting at possibilities of what may come and what we need to prepare for. While there is tremendous positive potential for new technologies, they can just as fast become exploited by corporations and governments with unchecked authority, which is evident as some firms have already made attempts at influencing dreams.

The plight of the average human, and the powerlessness we feel against bigger national and global problems, requires imagining some surreal, futurist alternative worlds and ways of living. 


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