Back in October, we watched John Trengove’s debut feature THE WOUND at the BFI London Film Festival and we were truly stunned, moved and impressed by this fascinating film that transported us to a world rarely seen on screen. Immediately, the film jumped into third place in our Foreign Language Film predictions in October and has maintained its strong position ever since. We predicted it would make the cut among the final 9 films in the FLF Oscar shortlist and currently have its chances as the third likeliest after heavyweights LOVELESS and FOXTROT.
THE WOUND is more than an ‘exotic’ or ‘discovery’ film – it’s an engrossing drama that pulls you in, thanks to superb direction by John Trengove and one of the best male performances of the year by Nakhane Touré as Xolani. Taking place in a ‘manhood camp’ where young males go through a process of initiation (which includes male circumcision) and are guided by older caregivers, the film presents a heartbreaking tale of love, friendship and tradition.
AwardsWatch’s Mina Takla sat down with Trengove to discuss his stunning directorial debut and one of the strongest films in the FLF race – and some exclusive info on his upcoming feature film projects in the pipeline.
AW: Before making THE WOUND, you made a short film that premiered in Berlin and was also about initiation and manhood camps in South Africa. Did you always feel passionate about such topic?
Trengove: Early on, I was keen on introducing viewers to a world they barely saw or heard anything about but it was difficult for us to pitch the script to different financiers who couldn’t imagine what they would be seeing on screen. So the short film (THE GOAT – 2014) provided a window to the universe of THE WOUND. We took an excerpt from one of the novels of Thando Mgqolozana (THE WOUND co-writer) which was about initiation and we covered a particularly beautiful section of the novel and adapted it for the short. The feature film, however, was stylistically and narratively different, despite covering the same ritual.
AW: In one of your previous talks about THE WOUND, you mentioned you were really keen on not taking a ‘National Geographic’ approach while making the film. Can you elaborate on that?
Trengove: There were so many reasons for me to be careful while approaching the subject matter. As an outsider, and a white privileged man approaching the subject matter, there were many potential pitfalls and mistakes [I didn’t want to get into], and I knew there would always be some criticism, including valid one, directed at me. I wanted to avoid a cliché’ and superficial approach to this world. In all the research I’ve done in the past on this ritual, I’d always come across these very beautiful, National Geographic-like, ethnographic displays of bodies against the landscape with sunsets, incredible grasslands and all – things that cater to the taste of Western-centric audience. And I was determined not to do that purely because for the characters themselves, the landscape is not interesting in that way – what’s important is these men’s bodies and what these bodies mean in personal and social contexts. It made sense not to use a ‘reserved observational style’ (which I had used in THE GOAT) and to bring the camera right upclose to the characters. At the same time, claustrophobia was very essential to the story. Even though we were shooting in these wide spaces, this was a way to create a sense of tension for the audience.
AW: Was the political climate, and particularly the statements made by Mugabe who claimed ‘homosexuality is not African’, an influence or a motivator for you to make the film?
Trengove: There was always a subtext that homosexuality comes from another place, that it is imported from the West, and that it’s a virus that does not belong to Africa and is attacking ‘traditional’ African culture. It was not just Mugabe who made such statements – we’ve heard similar statements in Uganda about how homosexuality is a foreign practice that needs to be driven out of Uganda. The film is absolutely a response to this idea – we’re not trying to convince anybody or make political statements or stand on a box and wave a flag, we were deliberately trying to tell a story that intersected same-sex desire with a setting which was about a traditional African practice. That’s why in the film, we imagined this rich openly-gay, Westernized kid from Johannesburg, who enters this initiation world, and starts to affect the cells of the [cultural] organism around him and for a while, we think he’s going to transform one of the cells in particular (the character of Xolani) but sooner or later, the organism does what it always does and defends itself against that foreign virus and it would do that even at the expense of sacrificing some of its own cells. That biological analogy became one interesting way to imagine the story, almost as a subversion to Mugabe’s notions.
AW: The casting of the film is sublime. Did you cast any actors who actually took part in the initiation process?
Trengove: Definitely. The community of men you see in the film is a real one – these are men from an area close to where we were shooting and they enact the initiation process on a regular basis. We didn’t cast them as extras or actors, we approached the community through community leaders and had pre-shooting discussions with them to see if they’re interested in participating. When filming these scenes, we worked almost like a documentary crew, it was them showing us how they do it. The way they do it is different from other regions – every area has its own way – so the one you see in the film is very particular to these men. And it became a point of pride – they wanted to represent themselves and their rituals properly. Every character in the film is a native Xhosa speaker – and their lived experiences were very close to their scenes in the film. Almost every actor on the film did go through initiation and that helped create a truly dynamic set.
AW: THE WOUND is a rare film that premiered in Sundance and was able to sustain its buzz and land on the FLF shortlist. Can you tell us about the audience reception in both Western and African parts of the world?
Trengove: Everywhere where we showed the film, it always had an emotional resonance – which I hadn’t anticipated. We made this film in a very particular social context and I never knew there could be a universal resonance to it. In Sundance, there were a lot of questions like ‘What am I looking at? Is this just one tribe in one area or is [initiation] widely practiced?’. The more the film existed in the film sphere, the more people came in to it with some background knowledge of what’s it about – and the bafflement subsided a lot, and people started to pay attention to the story itself. In some of the African screenings and parts of Asia (including Taiwan), audiences reacted in almost an opposite way. You could hear them saying statements like, ‘you see – this is what happens when homosexuality and tradition mix. Bad things happen and people die!’. They saw the film as a confirmation that these two things can’t simply co-exist. For me, that was very interesting. I certainly did not want to make a film that preaches to anybody – and to have the film hold different world views and still find something that people can resonate with and represent a complexity rather than one message people can all agree on. I was never an activist – and I do believe storytelling is always about these grey areas.
AW: Finally, THE WOUND is your debut feature. Why did you pick it as your first project and what’s next for you?
Trengove: In a way, the film chose me. I was working on something else and this idea came up with one of the conversations I was having with my co-producer. There was some sort of urgency and momentum behind THE WOUND that it very quickly became my first project. It’s not something I chose, in fact if I had chosen I might have thought this is too crazy or too ambitious for me to attempt as a first feature. And I couldn’t be happier. Next up for me, I am going back to some of the projects I was working on. I’m developing two South African projects: one is an adaptation of a South African and another is a script am writing, based on a true story of an incident that happened two years ago in a very affluent part of the country where we had these ‘gated, hyper-securitized’ communities and a very violent act that happened on the inside. The irony of these predominantly white, neurotic communities trying to protect themselves from the outside world, is that they faced a self-inflicted murder on the inside. I started investigating this phenomena for this new project. And I may also create a project with an American setting – now that I had several discussions with producers here in LA – but it may be too early to reveal specifics.