Dreaming New Worlds Wants You to Think About Technology in the Global South

Dreaming New Worlds © Goethe-Institut Nigeria

By Tobe Otuogbodor

I have to admit something: it was only when I started watching 2021’s Neptune Frost, the last of the three films in the screening Tobi Akinde curated for the Goethe-Institut's Dreaming New Worlds project that I was able to even hazard a guess at what the unifying theme of the selection might be. In addition to Neptune Frost, Tobi Akinde, an Ibadan-based filmmaker, researcher and curator, chose for the event, Afronauts (2014) and The Last Mango Before the Monsoon (2015). After each of the first two films I spent a few minutes trying to organise my thoughts about what I had just seen and spent zero time considering why. Why had it been chosen? At the time, if asked, I would have probably just gestured vaguely at the common visual strikingness of all three, mouthful of potato crisps. But halfway through the first act of Neptune Frost an idea hit me like a brick. Dreaming New Worlds is a project primarily concerned with what direction the future might take as the marriage between creativity and technology births more dimensions for those of us in underrepresented parts of the world. This theme is replicated so dexterously through the selection of films: they chart the journey of the  Global South and technology over three distinct periods of time.
Afronauts, the first film in the line-up, is an expressionistic retelling of the story of the 1960’s Zambian Space Program. In real life, Zambian schoolteacher Edward Nkoloso, started a space program with the intention of beating the United States to the moon. He and several of his teenage recruits set up a training facility in the arid wilderness where they prepare for the journey one of them (17-year-old Matha Mwambwa) is to make. The planned launch never came to pass. Nkoloso could not secure any funding and the story is seen primarily as an amusing, if somewhat sad, anecdote nowadays.
In Nuotama Bodomo’s film though, things happen differently. Mwambwa (played by an excellent Diandra Forrest) actually makes it to the moon. The technology is ramshackle (oil drums are used to simulate weightlessness and the spacecraft is cobbled together from scrap metal) but it works! The film is clearly supposed to take place in a heightened alternate history (emphasized by the gorgeous, yet removed, black and white photography; we start the film on Earth but we are already on another world). But the events portrayed warrant consideration in our world. They telegraph a clear message.
There was a time when people on this continent could have drastically changed the future by embracing technology on our own terms. This qualifier is crucial as the film notes when Matha’s mentor implores her, of the aliens she might encounter, “Do not try and force Christianity on them.”

 

Technology was a means by which we in this part of the world could have defined our own path, one removed from our colonial history but in real life we did not seize the chance. Now there is a schism between the “what could have been?” and the “what is”. We cannot close it, but Badomo shows us how we can at least identify it.
The next film features characters using technology for somewhat less grand ambitions. Payal Kapadia’s The Last Mango Before the Monsoon is largely plotless and mostly quiet. It is the section of our exploration through time-by-technology that is concerned with the present. Two Indian men set up heat sensitive cameras in the forest so they can observe the wildlife. The technology here is real, small scale and crucially, used altruistically. The men do not wish to observe the animals because there is something they can gain from them. Their sole motive, it seems, is a desire to check in on the animals. To make sure they are doing alright.
The film is punctuated by dreams (and discussions of dreams). It is a soft piece. The technology is unobtrusive to the point that it becomes part of the surrounding forest. It does not demand nor take. It cannot even be considered active; the cameras only record when the heat sensors are triggered by a nearby animal. It is a portrayal of how technology can be used in the Global South today. How it is being used. It is hopeful and beautiful but it is also very small-scale. The overriding message seems to be that some of us are doing good things. But one leaves the film with the sinking feeling that “some” is far from “enough”.
The final film, a co-directed effort by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyma, flung it into a surreal Afrofuturistic smorgasbord of ideas, colour and music. Neptune Frost is hard to describe but whatever it is, is unmistakable.
The film is a sci-fi musical set-in a future Burundi and follows a group of young people in what can only be loosely-described as a “hacker’s collective” as they take a stand against the oppressive militaristic Authority. As the premise makes obvious, technology plays the most central role in this film. Several characters have dreams wherein they interact directly with the internet and the eponymous protagonist, Neptune is “technokinetic” (she is able to consciously hack into wireless networks with nothing but her mind).
At first glance the film may seem confusing but thematically it is the most legible. It wears its heart (and a bit too much of what in a different film would be subtext) on its sleeve. Colonial powers mine African soil for minerals that help power the very technology by which they use to oppress the Africans. It is the story of today taken to its logical endpoint.
The hacker collective, known as the Unanimous Goldmine, uses Neptune’s powers to unleash a wave of cyberattacks on the whole of the West. The jubilation this brings however, is short-lived. Tragic consequences soon follow and Neptune is put in a position where she must again go on the offensive with her powers.
This story makes clear the widespread destructive potential of technology. It leads to mass oppression and death throughout the narrative. Yet it also contains the capacity to break chains. The film argues that all it takes is one (admittedly preternaturally special) person to properly harness the awe-inspiring power of the internet for good.
What is clear here is the acknowledgement that on our current trajectory technological advancement will only be used as a tool to widen inequality. Even as more and more breakthroughs promise a utopia of equal opportunity, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” will quickly tighten into a fist and smash down on the lower classes. The idea that a group of people could come together in defiance of this dystopian authoritarianism is a touching one. But, as presented in the film, is hopelessly naïve. However, it is important that we can at the very least dream of a future that though it is not free of suffering, is one from which we can escape.
Taken as a whole, these three films paint a picture of the Dreaming New Worlds project’s central considerations (one might even call them anxieties for how vividly foregrounded they are). Technology, and its unpredictable, interminable growth, will never stop changing things for us. There are opportunities that will spring up like crops but there will be more and more pitfalls along the way. I think ultimately what this selection of films (and by extension this project) offers us is not a prescription. It is a facilitation of conversation and its seed: the opportunity to make an informed choice.

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