Foreign Contenders: John Trengove on Surviving the Controversy Surrounding South Africa’s The Wound

Conceived to forge men via traditional practices, the rite of passage in South Africa’s Xhosa community is grounded on the endurance of pain and the building of fellowship with other members of the group.

It’s an archetypal all-male environment where anything perceived as weakness is rejected. Setting a story about secretive homosexual desire within this context, was sure to earn director John Trengove a slew of detractors, many of whom attacked his film, The Wound, even before anyone in the country had a chance to witness how transgressive or not it was for themselves.

Tasked by a wealthy man to be tough on his son, Xolani (played by popular South African singer Nakhane Touré) returns to the isolated landscape where the initiation ritual, which involved an undisclosed wound to the boys’ penises, takes place. Xolani will act as guide and caretaker for Kwanda (novice actors Niza Jay), who is a city kid that doesn’t abide by the expectations of masculinity. Returning here, also presents Xolani with an opportunity to see his illicit lover, Vija (Bungile Mantsai), a man who lives a seemingly heterosexual life but takes advantage of Xolani’s sexual and financial favors. A triangular battle of undisclosed and dangerous truths emerges between the three men, whose choices are irrevocably linked to their expected role in Xhosa society.

Starting its globetrotting wandering at Sundance 2017, followed by the Berlin International Film Festival, The Wound, Trengove’s debut feature, was eventually chosen as South Africa’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race, and it’s now among the nine shortlisted films out of the initial 92 contenders. The brave director shared with MovieMaker thoughts on facing controversy, directing actors in a foreign language, and why casting Xhosa men who had actually gone though the initiation was a key mandate for the production.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you initially approach the Xhosa community and this rite of passage? As an outsider, was there a personal connection that helped you create a bridge with this world?

John Trengove (JT): The Xhosa community of South Africa is the second largest population group—about 9 million people—so it’s a formidable sector of the community. Within that community, almost all men go through this practice, so it’s actually quite widely known, at least on a superficial level. The actual initiation itself is quite secluded and secretive, but everybody in the country generally knows that this thing happens, and most people will know several people who have actually been through this process. My co-producer, Batana Vundla, is a Xhosa man, which is how I first started speaking to somebody about the possibility of making this film. He’s Xhosa, and we’re two gay filmmakers, and we wanted to make a queer South African film. We also wanted to specifically set it in a traditional custom, primarily because of Robert Mugabe and what was happening in Uganda, and this new idea that homosexuality is un-African—that it’s somehow imported from the West—that it’s this virus infecting traditional African culture.

Batana’s background made this immediately accessible to us. The idea of a story about same-sex desire inside this community of all men was immediately very evocative, which offers a lot of potential to do more than just a queer love story, but to actually talk about a lot of things: race, class, masculine identity.

MM: Once you have this idea and a close collaborator, how did you go about getting to know men in the community first hand?

JT: The first step was about finding the right collaborators. I co-wrote the script with a man called Thando Mgqolozana. He’s a novelist who’s been through the process himself and wrote a novel about the experience. I read the novel and approached him immediately. It was only when he agreed to come on board that, for the first time, I thought, “Maybe there’s a way to do this. If there was one filmmaker of color who was dealing with anything remotely like this, I wouldn’t have considered making this film, but we were responding to a void. We also sat down and interviewed men, especially gay men, who had gone through this process. We had these dinner parties to hear from men about their experiences.

Eventually people had heard of us, and started approaching us to tell us their stories, so it became this interesting process of just listening to anecdotes, a lot of them very positive. There are many different kinds of experiences that people have when they go on this initiation. From there, I started cobbling together some kind of idea for a story, and then Thando and I bounced the script back and forth.

Just as important as the writing collaboration was the casting. We decided we would only cast first-language Xhosa speakers, and we would only cast men who had been through the initiation themselves. Very often, it was about knowing, “Ok, we have the script and we’ve spent a lot of time developing it, but lets also keep creating spaces for people to make their own proposals.” In the film, that’s a real community of men who enact this ritual on a regular basis. We didn’t say to them, “Do it like this.” They showed us how their particular community performs it. We made minor requests like for them to do it at a certain moment in the day for lighting purposes or whatever, but that was really the process that set the style of the film. We started shooting those scenes, and they were so alive and palpable, we felt that we have to quickly adjust the way we’re shooting everything else—to strip the performances down so that it can dovetail into this documentary reality.

MM: Since you were only casting native speakers who have gone through that process, did this shrink the pool of actors that could be cast to play the leads?

JT: The Xhosa community is a significant part of the population of the country, so we do have Xhosa actors and celebrities, but a lot of those were cut off from us because of the gay nature of the storyline. There was just too much heat around what we were proposing, so a lot of people, especially those with a fan base, chose not to participate. That is also part of the reason why we understood that we had to go with a more non-traditional casting approach, casting a lot of non-professional actors. Niza Jay, who plays Kwanda, and Nakhane Toure, who plays Xolani, are both out gay men who have their own, difficult relationship with their traditional heritage and chose to participate for very personal reasons. Nakhane, knowing that he was going to face a lot of flack for it, came into this and showed incredible bravery. He’s faced death threats online, because he’s a singer, a songwriter, and a novelist—he has a very public profile.

A scene from The Wound. Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

MM: How do you deal with controversy?

JT: It was a difficult couple of months, there’s no way around it. We felt on the whole that most of these voices were young men from rural areas who were, in one way or another, disempowered and angry. It never felt like there was somebody on the doorstep ready to inflict any kind of real physical harm. At the same time, Nakhane was supposed to shoot a documentary that got canceled because of this.

Long before the film was actually released, there was strong dialogue in both directions, for and against the film, for many different reasons. I think that has subsided. We started hosting these special screenings in townships and community groups in rural areas, trying to get people to see the film. So if they’re critical, at least they can be critical of what the film is, as opposed to a preconceived idea of the film. That made a big difference. As soon as we started teasing the actual film, it quickly shifted the conversation.

The perception to a large extent was that it was exploitative—that we were revealing secrets about the initiation. Everything that’s in the film is in the public domain, and that was a conscious decision, to not include several very sensitive aspects. The cutting scene, for example, it’s kind of in your face, but it’s also a little ambiguous. A lot of American audiences haven’t been sure whether it’s circumcision or scarring, and that was also a decision. That was a particularly sensitive thing, and to show it would be, in a way, too transgressive, and could overshadow the story. I was concerned that the circumcision would weigh too heavily at the top of the film, when really the film is about something else.

MM: How do you direct actors when they’re speaking a language that you don’t speak?

JT: We have an interesting situation in South Africa. We have 11 official languages, and anybody who directs television is used to directing in multiple languages. We have mandates for TV series to be 60 percent English or 40 percent Xhosa. We literally have these language quotas, so it’s something that we all are used to on some level. Obviously, in this case, it was a little more important than on a telenovela to absolutely nail the nuances, but we had a facilitator and consultant on set who was able to monitor all of the language and make corrections if need be. Then we had all of the rushes translated when we went to post, because there was so much improvisation, somebody had to actually translate the rushes before we could start editing.

MM: Visually, were your cinematography decisions influenced by the landscapes or by the human interactions?

JT: There’s obviously the temptation to shoot it beautifully because of the landscape, but I think that’s a trap. That’s a kind of ethnographic or national geographic kind of treatment of traditional culture. I just felt that the landscape is not important to the characters in that way; they don’t necessarily see it like that, so to indulge that desire for an audience would be a insincere. The story is about these character’s bodies, and what those bodies mean in a social context, so it made sense to be up close to their physical beings. If a character moves through a landscape, the landscape is revealed by moving with them, rather than taking a step back and letting things play out. I also felt that the story needed to be claustrophobic. I wanted to find a way for the audience to experience Xolani’s own suffocation and need for escape, and so because we were shooting in these wide open spaces, these close-ups became a way of creating that experience.

MM: It’s ambitious for a first feature. Do you think that without what came before in your career, you would have been able to make a debut film like this?

JT: Funnily enough, this was not supposed to be my first feature. I was working on something else that I’m actually going back to now, but when this came along, it had an urgency; there was just this momentum behind it from day one. There were times when I felt like the project was willing itself into existence, and I was just holding on to it. It wasn’t the plan, and probably if I had to plan it, I would never have dreamed of doing something like this off the bat. But this was the hand the world dealt to me. MM

 The Wound is now available on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber. 

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