Njoroge Muthoni’s films find the ache in the body and surface it. His camera follows the subject like a question, speaking to the surreal way people navigate the inner cartographies of pain, grief and longing – against the sharp relief of the passage of time. In March 2023, the Nairobi-based filmmaker released The Dog Trilogy, comprising three stunning short films: “A Short Film On How To Wait”, “It’s Monday Morning” and “The Problem With Dogs”.
For Debunk, Karwitha Kirimi speaks to the filmmaker. They discuss everyday grief, the body and making films in the pandemic.
Karwitha: There’s something about how you attend to grief, how you make time for characters to cry, how you invite us to stay with the discomfort of witnessing grief and to stay with the discomfort of untidy unfinished feeling. Grief is a palpable emotion in the work. The structures of the world we live in don’t know what to do with it. Thank you for paying attention in the ways you do.
When I sit with your work, I feel the grief I can’t always speak or articulate, I feel it honoured and I feel in communion with the community of the grieving, which is all of us. I’m curious to know what the process of making these films revealed to you about grief.
Njoroge: That’s a really wonderful question.
I was expressing my own grief. These films are more than just moments, they are life itself. What the films revealed to me about my own grief is that grief is human. To grieve is to be human. We don’t know how to deal with grief, especially everyday grief. It showed me that it is possible and also very human, to grieve someone who is alive. It showed me that it’s OK to grieve the process of existence itself, to grieve failed dreams. It is human to feel. That’s what I was able to understand, to affirm, after I made the films.
Karwitha: The films feel like poetic meditations. I love poems and I make poems. I could see a lot of the things I’m drawn to in poetry in your films. The writing is sparse, the films invite you to slow down. The writing is all like, when it’s a question it’s a question you can flip over and return to and walk with, like a stone in your hand. There were no throw away words. Every word felt useful and necessary. You wrote the dialogue in Kikuyu, with the closed captioning in English, which to me, brings all these different poetics together. I loved that. It felt like there were so many poems in one scene, very layered. I’m curious, what did the writing process look like?
Njoroge: Yes there is an element of poetry to it, the films could be reflections, meditations as you put them. On my end, they feel a lot like dreams. You start with reality, with A Short Film About Waiting, and then suddenly It’s Monday Morning and I’m in Pain, you’re in so much pain, everything feels like a dream. The Problem with Dogs becomes more like a meditation, whatever you were seeing is not real, it’s not from the person you’re seeing on the screen, it’s seen from the perspective of the person not on the screen. Automatically it becomes like a meditation, a thought, you’re trying to go back to where it all started and all of that.
There is a poetic element to it, I knew what I wanted to write. I knew I was done writing my films in English. I knew I was done trying to have my actors speak in English. All the films were in Kikuyu, except Two Gents and a Pan, which was in Kikamba. Some of the greatest films I’ve watched are not in English, they’re in Korean, Russian, Hungarian, Swedish (the great Roy Anderson). I should be able to talk and get through to anyone who watches it using my indigenous language. I’m looking forward to writing more films and theatre in Kikuyu!
Karwitha: Walk me through the process of this project coming together.
Njoroge: I started the initial feature-length screenplay in October 2018 and finished it around August 2019. I had been stuck creatively for a long time and one day I just picked up the pen and I was done writing. The process was a lot. To begin with, it was self funded. I had no funds to film the entire feature, but I could afford a small part of it which I used to source for assistance. Shortly after, the project took on a life of its own and we had the first installation, A Short Film About Waiting, in 2020 at the height of Covid-19.
We built the set ourselves and since it was a short distance from home, we’d go home to eat because we couldn’t afford to have catering on set. That was a lesson on community. Community was the most important thing to have throughout the process. If it weren’t for the community of artists I worked with, we wouldn’t have been able to make and share these films. Making this film became the beginning of something beautiful, something that prompted us to be and to become, beyond the work. That’s when I knew that I wanted to question and indulge further with the work and thus The Dog Trilogy came to be in 2023.
Karwitha: There’s this archetype of a director as a singular genius and everyone else is treated more or less like a minion to actualise the director’s vision. How do you play with the tension between articulating and honouring your vision, while being in collaborative exchange with the people you’re working with?
Njoroge: Collaboration is incredibly important. To me, collaboration cultivates community, cultivates understanding, cultivates a cohesiveness of the vision. I am a very actor-oriented director. I like working with actors and letting the camera do its work. I focus on the performance and what the actor is thinking, I don’t try to control it, I try to prompt it. I like to create a really easy intentional vibe on the set, I like for people to be involved and know they are important in the process. I also insist on a set where if you want something, say “please”, if you’ve received something, say “thank you”, if you feel something is not going right, talk, don’t raise your voice at anyone. My vision isn’t the only vision that matters, we can set clear communication lines, discuss things clearly in pre-production and the magic is really left to the actors themselves.
Karwitha: I was rewatching It’s Monday Morning and I’m in Pain which is such an apt title! Parts of it made me uncomfortable; how he muffled his cries with his hands…. That struck a chord in my body. In The Problem With Dogs, the camera follows the body, paying deliberate attention to how emotion and tension sit in a body. What intention guides how you frame the body?
Njoroge: I’m glad you got to engage with the film on a personal level. I like to think I am listening to them through the camera. I can hear these nonverbal cues therefore, I am able to capture these feelings, these little subtle movements, generally how the body is behaving in relation to action, space, time, or whatever is happening. I like to think I am a good listener. Really what’s happening is that I am just paying attention. The characters are speaking and they communicate what they’re feeling in every subtle move. My intention is: this is a human being in front of me, they’re experiencing something, I want to record that, I want to have everything on record.
Karwitha: There’s this intentionality undergirding your work. A quick example, at the screening you held, everyone in the audience got a still with a handwritten note on the back from you. How do you cultivate intention as an artist, as a filmmaker. What role does taking time play in your process?
Njoroge: I really try to make the work as personal as possible. I try to imagine that if this could be the only chance I have to do this work in particular, I might as well be intentional about it. So I do what I can to make it feel right, and making it feel right feels a lot like personalising the experience. It feels like using a physical still and saying, “Niaje, thank you for coming, thank you for sharing this experience with me.”
Karwitha: What were you returning to in the process of making the films? Were there touchstones you found yourself returning to? What kept you company in the process of making this?
Njoroge: There are references to timeless work I’ve watched before, including The Seventh Seal, a lot of Bergman, a lot of Béla Tarr from The Turin Horse. That was during the process. I felt inspired to pay homage and refer to these different pieces.
I did not watch a single movie in the period I was actively shooting this film. I wasn’t really listening to music. I would sit on the balcony and just look outside. That’s all I wanted to do. I was coming back to myself.
Karwitha: What did funding look like? What logistics came into play? Did anything about that aspect of filmmaking surprise you?
Njoroge: The film was self-funded. It looked a lot like starting a business and getting a hand on the finances as fast as possible because the crew and cast need to be looked after and paid, just like a business, so that right there can be hectic. Nothing surprised me really. I have done this for a couple of years so I know that if I add 1 to 1 I’ll get 2, so yeah.
Karwitha: What films or other pieces of art are touchstones for you in general?
Njoroge: The Myth of Sisyphus. The play Waiting for Godot. The novel The Brothers Karamazov…. I’m fascinated by Dr Dre’s production and how he leans towards reality rap and the bridges in his music get me going. I listen to a lot of Kendrick. He’s incredible and basically I recognise the patterns in his work. I have patterns in my work too.
Karwitha: I know you want to get into horror next, what draws you to that? What kind of collaborations and projects are you inviting and looking forward to?
Njoroge: I’m drawn to horror by how it uses suspense, and its ability to literally keep people on the edges of their seats. That’s how art should make people feel and that’s why I really think horror is one of the finest art forms of expression. It digs deeper into the human experience, consciousness, and strikes the complacency out of our heads. I think horror has the ability to break bias, promote tolerance and unity, and be a source of great inspiration. I want to explore that. I am looking to collaborate with multiple special effects artists, makeup artists, and we will be making a whole lot of blood! And also energetic actors from theatre who are ready to battle demons and all that good stuff.
Karwitha: There’s a Rilke quote that’s a touchstone for me. He says there are questions we live with throughout our lives, and he says to just live the questions and one day without knowing it, you might live your way into the answer. I wonder what questions you were living with while making the films, through the 3 years, and if there are questions that you had, and maybe even forgot you had, that the process of making the film has answered. Did the process gift you more fertile questions?
Njoroge: I had more convictions than questions while walking into the process. I said what I know, what I have witnessed and experienced. I took everything I was convinced of and was like “let’s go”, but I never moved. I have never been the same after I made the work; in a good way.
See more of Njoroge’s work Here