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Acid Seven: Nothing Makes Sense, and That's What Makes Sense - A Conversation with Ryan Njenga


Ryan Njenga is a filmmaker, as well as a member and co-founder of the Rosewood KC collective. We met a while back in Lawrence, and immediately struck up a conversation about the music and movies we enjoyed; we'd easily burn through an hour talking about what a record meant to us. Our discussion here is no different. 


Even then, he was always working on something, and he always believed in what he was working on. Running in to each other for the first time in nearly a year was fortuitous. Just like then, he was nearly finished with a number of new films. He needed a score for one -- an Eraserhead-inspired short film called Beautiful. I sent him an improvised tape track I'd just finished. A few weeks later, I got a message back: "I'll have a cut of the movie with the music you sent ready by next Sunday and wanted to get your thoughts." That's when it clicked for me why he always had a project rolling: he believes in the creative work of those around him just as much as he believes in his own.


Photos by James Foos.



You're working on like, three projects at the moment?

In terms of filming, we're filing Funeral, Beautiful, and we're in pre-production of the Birds -- a comedy. Then A Dialogue Between Two Ex-Lovers, we filmed half of that, but then the actors had to leave for Connecticut, so we're pushing that to November.


You're a producer on another project as well?

Yes. I'm editing one film and then I'm producing a film for Ishan Parikh, who's a KU filmmaker.


You've always got a lot of stuff rolling. You mention that you like to chase down an idea and follow through with it, which reminds me of Lynch "catching ideas." Is it helpful to be consistently in that creative mode?

Absolutely. Always keep everything creative. One project will inspire the other one. Yeah, for sure.


Something that came up in dialogue with Laraaji was hearing the "inner voice," or receiving the answer to your prayers. Was there ever a catalyzing moment for you when you knew that film was your thing?

For sure. As a kid, I always wanted to be an artist -- something in entertainment. It evolved into more specifically art house-y stuff. I always loved movies, but I wanted to do something personal. I never saw movies as something that could be personal. All you grow up watching is like Disney and Spielberg -- all dope shit, don't get me wrong. But I saw in about a month's span Annie Hall, 2001, and Eraserhead. That blew my fucking mind -- I didn't know you could do that. It's auteur cinema, you know? It's a specific point of view -- someone putting their heart out through such an ambitious medium, and that's when I knew this is it. This is the one for me. I definitely want to expand past movies, but it's my first love.


That brings me to being personal. There is an idea that runs through most of your films -- the struggle with identity. That brings things into a melancholy, reflective space. What is it that draws you to this mode? Does that come from auteur cinema to you, or is it just the right way to express things you need to say?

Definitely both. I think that through those directors that I reference, they all put a huge stamp on who they are. To me, those are the best artists. I think the whole thing about art is staking a claim about who you are, or trying to express that. I feel like as a person, I don't think there's one singular form of identity. We all have different varieties of ourselves. I don't believe there's one Ryan Njenga, I think there's different Ryan Njengas. Each film is stylistically different, because I feel like it's an expression of a different side of me -- either that I discover, or that I have hidden, and it just has to get out there.


That reminds me of Mobongo, which takes place in a very white Lawrence. There's even a title card that says "we couldn't find a single Black person." That's a statement of the place you were living at the moment, and I guess also a way of saying maybe this isn't the best place to be.

Exactly. It's not a place I can exist in as myself. I don't know how personal I should get, but I think it goes back to how I grew up. It's something I haven't realized until these last two years -- around the time I made Switzer. It's like I'm just born different. I'm the son of Kenyan parents growing up in America as a Black man. So that's just a confluence where you don't fit in anywhere. You're a very specific niche of a person. So that loneliness, I guess, might always radiate in whatever I do. That's also why identity bleeds through everything I do.


Creating from that place of different-ness always seems like it's closer to the heart. Tackling loneliness or isolation like an interrogation of concepts misses the mark in a lot of ways, I think. When you're familiar with the feeling though, you're taking something and translating it. I think that comes across. Where does this inspiration come from for you, though?

I like your comment about things coming from the heart. I don't wanna criticize anyone. But some people attack a concept from an analytical point of view. I never understood that. I've tried it, and it doesn't hit it hard. It should be personal. It should be from the heart. For me, it comes from a need to express something -- like, if I don't get this out, I'm gonna fuckin' regret it. With some projects, I thought about making them, like Funeral... we talked about it in like 2017 or '18. I gave up on it. I thought it's too big. I can't do it. I couldn't make anything, so I just decided to tackle it. That's everything.




There's a real necessity there. There's no other way to say it but the way you know how -- even if it's hard. 

Art from necessity.


What have you been drawing inspiration from lately?

The people around me and the feeling in the air. There's this vague feeling. History goes in cycles, so every generation goes through a moment where they're like yo, this might be it. We're all gonna die. I'm aware of that, so it helps me going through like Covid, or the person in office, and so on. But it still viscerally feels like this might be the end of everything. Basically, that feeling contrasting with the love I get from everyone around me. Like my friend Jordan Phipps, or you and Claire, my favorite people I've met in a minute -- you have so much warmth and love that I just get inspired. I'm just taking it from that sort of thing, the idea of love between all of humanity in the face of anything to guide me through these projects.


It's a big contrast. Would you say that love keeps you going?

Absolutely. That's the only thing that'll get you through in the face of anything -- it's love. My favorite thing in anything is contrasting clashing elements that don't quite make sense. That's life -- nothing makes sense, and that's what makes sense. I think a big theme from those other films -- because I do short film collections -- was the idea of what's gonna get you through all this. All this darkness in the world, the sense of loneliness and isolation; all of those characters can't find it. They all end up alone, whether they're happy and okay with it or not. I don't wanna spoil Funeral, but the ultimate ending there is that love is art and expression, and also love in all its varieties: self-love, platonic love, romantic love, or the kinda love you have with an ex -- not romantic, but like "if you're hurting, I'm hurting." I think that's where these next films are going: self-expression and love in all its varieties.


What's the release date for Beautiful?

September 27th.



I think this is a Kanye influence. Seeing him do everything last minute, and it used to work so well, so that's what I'm doing. I wanna move away from that, but it's so fun. Getting those last minute ideas, like this actually works, let's throw it in!


Still from Beautiful, due out Sep 27.



There's something kinda cool about an impulse that's so strong you can't possibly not put it in. I can't imagine being in a more formal situation where you'd already handed it over.  I like the idea of working last second.

It makes it so much more you. It's a visceral spark of inspiration. That comes from your gut. It comes from your heart, from some part of your head.


I love the idea that there can be many forms of a piece. It's like the director's cut, right? The idea doesn't die once you've articulated it in a certain way. With auteur cinema, there are really obvious fixations that crop up in most of the director's films. Do you think you'll always have a few things you return to?

I think so. I can't predict the future, but I feel like, yeah, that's shit you grew up with. You can never let go of it. Everything you make is like a reaction to that. It'll be interesting to see -- like seeing David Lynch approaching certain ideas, or Kubrick and PTA, how they all grow and change. It's the same thing, and it's the same person, but it's different. That'll be interesting to see how that changes for me. Right now, another big theme for me is dealing with death. One thing that fascinates me about Beautiful is that I'm the same person I was when I made Switzer and Mobongo, but my view on death has changed so much. I like its point of view on death, or how it reflects how I feel now.


It's like, how do I view this question as I grow and develop? Maybe you're not looking for an answer, but you're answering it in the best way you can at the time.

That's perfect actually. It's like a benchmark, we'll see how I feel in a year.


I wanted to hear your thoughts about collaboration. What's Rosewood? The tagline is "together, by ourselves." What does it mean to how you create?

I mean, collaboration is always important in all of our films. In terms of Rosewood, my vision is the idea of building a community of artists -- people who might have never linked up in different timelines. That can create some really crazy, inspirational shit. We want to make sure each artist is able to be their own thing. It's a collective, but it's not a brand. We'll help as much as you want us to help. I'm excited to build it more, because there are so many ideas I have for it.




In the Midwest, I've noticed that's kind of a difficult thing. In some instances, we're living in a place where there's not necessarily much in our immediate surroundings to react to. I think it's cool to be able to self-generate that, though.

Suburbia is defined by separation in a way, and the Midwest is almost all suburbia. That's definitely a hard place to build a community. I wanna be able to fight that isolation, because I don't think any of us should feel alone. In terms of how Rosewood was created, I tweeted "Man, it'd be cool to have a creative collective," and Jake was like, "Yo, you wanna do this?" and we just did it.


Following through on the ideas. When you approached me about doing the score for Beautiful, you mentioned Eraserhead and The Lighthouse. Is there anything you found in that more experimental mode that has allowed you to communicate more effectively?

I'm better able to communicate to myself how I feel -- the ideas in that film. We'll see how it communicates to other people. That's how you have to do it, though. You have to approach things from different perspectives to understand them better. I'm pumped for that movie.


How are these new projects different?

There's still that surrealism -- I don't think that'll ever leave. They're a little more hopeful. Looking in the face of death and saying, "eh, it's alright!"  

Beautiful is dropping, then we have a comedy, The Bird, coming in October, a visual poem, coming hopefully in November, then A Dialogue Between Two Ex-Lovers coming in December. So we've got a lot to finish. I'm excited. They're so different, too. I almost thought after Mobongo, I wouldn't have anything left to say. Somehow, you find a way.


A visual poem!

It's gonna be crazy. The color palettes and visual ideas we have... This poet, Sam Simons -- he fucking killed it. It'll be film-based, with more professional equipment. We're working with Dan Banks, who's like a premiere cinematographer. Shout out to him. He was really excited for it, too.


Anything else you wanna plug?

Shout out Rosewood, shout out everyone who supports me, shout out Jordan, shout out FREDD1E FRESH.

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month (give or take) for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow them on Twitter.

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