Interview: Director John Trengove talks South African coming-of-age drama, 'The Wound'

August 17th 2017

John Trengove's South African coming-of-age drama, The Wound is a visceral and powerfully done film about queer Black identity and its intersections with Ukwaluka, the rite of passage for male Xhosa teens— a rural tribe in the country. The film follows Xolani (Nakhane Touré) an isolated closeted factory worker who returns each year to act as a khaukatha, or mentor for the younger boys. However, his real motive in returning is to seek comfort in the arms of his secret lover, Vija (Bongile Mantsai), a married father of three and fellow mentor whose outward performance of masculinity makes him both him feared and admired.

When Xolani is assigned to Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) a Westernized posh teen from the suburbs of Johannesburg, everything Xolani has long kept buried deep begins to rise to the surface. With Trengove, a white South African in the director's chair, The Wound has already be shrouded in contraversy— something the filmmaker expected before taking on the project. "I think now, with all of the dialogue around the film— a lot of the criticism and backlash to the film ... This is still part of the learning process, " he told Shadow and Act. "I feel like I'm still going through the process of making The Wound and these conversations [are] an integral part of that process."

Ahead of the film's debut, I sat down to speak with Mr. Trengove about why he decided to write and direct this film, what The Wound says in conversation with Berry Jenkins' Moonlight and what he's learned about himself during this entire process.

Aramide Tinubu: What inspired you to write this story and how did you connect with the author Thando Mgqolozana to get into this world since you are really an outsider to Xhosa culture?

John Trengove: I think that's the million dollar question. It started with a conversation between a colleague and myself, Batana Vundla, who's a producer. He actually became a co-producer on the film, and we spoke about the possibility of making a queer film in South Africa. We felt this that was something that was not being done and at that point. That was five years ago, and with Batana being both gay as well as Xhosa—the conversation sort of moved organically towards the idea of the rites of passage into manhood. The thing that suddenly became sort of meaningful to us was this idea that at the time, the media was quite saturated with statements of people like Robert Mugabe saying that homosexuality was un-African—a Western decadence, that it was against traditional African culture. It seemed meaningful to us at that time to kind of intersect these two ideas. A story about same sex desire in a very specific traditional context, which is a rite of passage into manhood. I think also that is what sort of opened the full aptitude to a broader thematic potential than just let's say a queer film for a queer audience. It allowed us to kind of speak about bigger things like patriarchy and fractured masculinity and all these ideas I was interested in unpacking.

AT: Have you received any backlash about your participation since you are a white filmmaker?

JT: Yes, there's been backlash— and I would say rightly so. I wouldn't want to dismiss it as irrelevant. I am fully aware of the problematic nature of representation and my own kind of relationship with the subject matter, not just as a white man but really as somebody who occupies a position of privilege to be speaking and telling stories about marginalized Black queer identities. It's an uncomfortable space that I knew that I was stepping into when I started making this film. What I endeavor to do was to really make sure that I had the best possible collaborators on board. Meaning, Xhosa men who have been through the initiation themselves, who came on board as key collaborators at various stages of the process. Those were Thando Mgqolozana, who is a fantastic novelist in South Africa and his first novel is about the initiation. He was my first kind of port of call and I was very, very happy when he agreed to come on board. At that point, I thought, Okay, that this was something I could do. Up until then, I really had my doubts whether this was something I should even begin to undertake. But when Thando came on board he was very interested in the project. I think he appreciated the particular point of view that we were interested in exploring. That being sort of alternative representations of masculinity rather than the sort of very kind of narrow depictions that were popular in African cinema at that point, or that we're kind of used to seeing. Then there was Batana Vundla, my co-producer, who like I said is Xhosa and has his own complicated relationship with the culture. Then the actors who I think their boundaries also became the film's boundaries. That's the kind of collaborative aspect of it, but I also thought that I needed to kind of be honest about how much I could legitimately speak about. So I do feel that the film is quite constrained in terms of what it tries to say. It doesn't show a large portion of what happens in these initiation spaces simply because I felt like it really wasn't my prerogative to represent those aspects of the initiation. I tried to confine it as much as possible to the perspective of Xolani, the caregiver and the fact that his inner conflict, which was an emotional terrain that I felt I had a handle on. I think if you look at the film as a whole, it is very much about the problematic nature of an outsider's perspective. The preconceptions of an outsider coming into a world that he doesn't know and how those preconceptions create jeopardy for the people inside the culture. That was very much intentional. That part of the story was constructed in such a way to mirror my own somewhat problematic relationship with the subject matter.

AT: You specifically chose men who had been through the initiation process. Did you have trouble casting more popular South African actors?

JT: I think the ritual or the initiation is quite widely practiced in South Africa, so there was certainly more famous or better known Xhosa actors who have been through the experience themselves. But, I think that the film was contentious from the very beginning. It was a very controversial project, and I think a lot of actors and their managers were nervous about participating for fear of a kind of backlash from their fan base. This is something that we understood from the beginning, and so we purposely started casting very early. More than a year before we shot we were putting hundreds and hundreds of young men on camera. I always enjoyed working with non-actors or at least I do feel that they can contribute something very potent to a film if deployed in the right way. I was very interested in this prospect of going out to find people and faces that we haven't necessarily seen on the screen before. In the end, I think it paid off in the sense that we really did find very interesting undiscovered or first-time talents. We also found like minded individuals who gravitated toward the project for very personal reasons. [They] decided to participate because of who they were or because of something that they felt was important about what the project was doing. The whole thing became quite personal because of that approach.

AT: South Africa is actually extremely liberal in comparison to many other African countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights. However, what you see in the film between Xolani and Kwanda especially, is this generational divide. Where did that idea come from?

JT: I think this is very much true of the South African experience. It's absolutely right, as you say, that in the kind of urban senses, you can be an out gay person and live your life as you would in Berlin or New York. There are spaces where LGBTI people are protected and have kind of the basic human rights. But that doesn't extend to the entire country. You would have in close proximity, and especially in poorer regions, or the rural regions where the film is set, a starkly different reality where it's absolutely not tolerated. I think this is something that the people have asked about before because the ending is quite shocking. Understanding what is at stake for characters like Xolani and Vija if they were exposed, I think would be comparable to certain countries like Uganda and Nigeria or Zimbabwe. Maybe not in the sense that there's a kind of a legal death penalty—but a kind of social ostracization and it's completely viable. That extremity I think was interesting to represent in the film. These two completely separate worlds rubbing up against each other. I'm glad that you picked up on the idea that Kwanda is in many ways naive. I think a lot of audiences want to completely identify with him as being this beacon of truth. He is quite a seductive character but also doesn't fully understand the consequences of what he's talking about.

AT: He also had a lot of privilege because of his upbringing in comparison to the other boys.

JT: I think in some ways Kwanda became a kind of surrogate for me. I was this gay kid growing up in Johannesburg and had a kind of liberal education and family background. I always felt like he was a character who could express some of my own preconceptions. Then in the writing of the film, was about a kid ... He would present these ideas that I would have. Let's try and problematize those. It's let's see how he comes into this world and creates a kind of crisis with these ideas.

AT: Have you thought about The Wound in conversations with Moonlight—a Western story of Black masculinity and identity?

JT: We first heard about Moonlight when we were sort of at the end of our production period. We just wrapped shooting on The Wound, and we were in post-production and then suddenly this kind of the muse of Moonlight emerged, and we were quite surprised and interested. I mean we'd been tracking the project since it first became public. Specifically because of what seems to be a kind of thematic similarity between the two films. I mean ultimately they're not similar. I do think that the attention that Moonlight has received has been favorable for us as well. I think with Moonlight comes a kind of expanded public interest in ideas about Black male queer identity and so there's space to kind of shoehorn our film into a global radar. An interviewer pointed this out to me the other day that there are very few films that show Black people having sex. Even Moonlight falls into that kind of bracket. I think for us, this was always a very important part of what The Wound is. Not showing sex for the sake of showing sex, but putting kind of queer imagery on screen as something that we felt was kind of erased from the kind of canon of African cinema by and large. Presenting these kinds of interactions as authentically and as specifically as possible was very much something that the actors and I discussed at length and that we were invested in doing. For me, that's one kind of significant distinction between the two films.

AT: What did you learn about yourself through this experience of writing the film and getting it made?

JT: I think that the film has very much been an exercise of stepping into unknown spaces and letting go and trusting the process more than anything I've even done. It's really been a lesson in the value of that. I think that as soon as I understand something too much or when I have too much control—it becomes too easy, the work invariably becomes boring and I have a hard time engaging with it once it's out in the world. For me, The Wound is something I can still watch, miraculously, after all this time because so much of what is there in a way came as a surprise to me. A lot of random elements that made the shoot both very exhausting but also very rewarding because there was something bigger and greater than me that was at play. It was a very kind of humbling and enriching experience for me.

The Wound debuts in theaters Aug. 16, 2017.

 

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