‘the wound’ is a queer coming-of-age film set in rural south africa
John Trengove's haunting narrative feature explores repressed sexuality within a secretive Xhosa rite of passage.
nakhane touré and bongile mantsai in "the wound." courtesy kino lorber.
Teenagers around the world abide by codes of silence, normally to hide flunked math tests or unsanctioned house parties. But there's no rite of passage shrouded in more secrecy than the one undergone by boys in South Africa's Xhosa community. "There are thousands of young men who are initiated and go to the mountain," explains director John Trengove, "but exactly what happens there is intended to be secretive." Trengrove's new narrative film The Wound takes a story of same sex desire — something still underrepresented in American cinema — and sets it in the ancient ulwalukoa circumcision ceremony undergone by Xhosa males in a rural hut in the mountains. The ritual is disrupted when Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), a sassy queer kid from inner-city Johannesburg, reluctantly arrives to become a man.
It's not just the ritual that Kwanda shows disdain for. When he discovers that his guardians Xolani (Nakhane Touré) and Vija (Bongile Mantsai) are also engaging in a secret homosexual relationship, he begins to see the older men, who are charged with toughening him up, as hypocrites in denial. It's not the teenagers who demonstrate the toxic consequences of studied masculinity and traditional patriarchy.
Kwanda isn't the only outsider either. Trengove is also exploring his own problematic presence and preconceptions as a white, gay filmmaker, albeit one working closely with Xhosa collaborators, including co-producer Batana Vundla. All the actors besides Niza are rural Xhosa men who have gone through the ulwalukoa ceremony. Nakhane, one of South Africa's few openly gay singer and songwriters, bravely took on the role despite knowing he would get the brunt of the backlash in a country still hostile to LGBTQ people. As Trengove explains, the casting led to a lot of homophobic tensions on set, with the mostly novice actors given free reign to react to situations as they saw fit. "A lot of the men were not distinguishing between the actor and the character they were playing," he says. "They regarded him as this rebellious and problematic entity. It was sort of a controlled experiment."
How did you learn about the Xhosa coming-of-age ritual?
Even though this particular ritual is quite secretive, the Xhosa culture is a very prominent one in South Africa, and the initiation is something that virtually all Xhosa men go through. It's so serious and so important that you're not regarded as a man in the culture if you don't go through it. Most South Africans know about the initiation although they don't know much about it. This wouldn't exist if it wasn't for people like Nelson Mandela, who wrote about [the ritual] quite extensively in his autobiography. There have been various other instances of books and articles and documentaries percolating, especially in the last decade. It is certainly something that has become more controversial and debated in the country. Our film follows on the heels of that conversation.
What was the reaction of the Xhosa men you approached while doing research?
That was the interesting part. We're at a juncture in the culture where there's more and more pressure for transparency and open dialogue around this practice, precisely because on the one hand it's considered archaic and potentially dangerous, but at the same time, still very vital and important to personal cultural identity. The younger generation that I spoke to was very forthcoming with information and took a keen interest in participating. Having said that, there were certainly many who would have nothing to do with the project, because of the taboos around it.
One of the things that did really strike me was how Kwanda is quite comfortable with being gay. Are young Xhosa men more accepting of homosexuality in general?
Yes, we cast people specifically for that reason. Everybody in the film is Xhosa, and everybody in the film has been through the initiation, with the exception of Niza. Niza is the product of an urban, middle-class upbringing, which is something that really sets him apart from the other people in the film. He really is that character — he's this outspoken, defiant kid who has really claimed his own queer identity and has had to defend it at a very young age.
I'd love to talk more about the casting process. Nakhane Touré is an out, gay singer?
Yes. Nakhane is first and foremost a singer and songwriter who is really rising in prominence in South Africa at the moment. I approached him with the possibility of maybe scoring the film. During our first meeting I sensed that he was a very interesting person and that there was something very close to the character of Xolani as I'd written him. I carried on with the casting process after that, but nobody came up who was half as interesting as he was. I approached Nakhane with the possibility of acting in the film, and it was a bit of a gamble for everyone involved, because he had no prior acting experience, but he manages to convey a huge amount without saying anything, which is really kind of essential to the character.
Did Nakhane being gay and famous make him less apprehensive about tackling this role?
To an extent, yes. Making this film was in some ways an extension of what he was doing already. He had decided before we even met that he was an out gay performer. That is already unique in our industry. However, he certainly is facing a huge backlash at the moment. There's a tremendous amount of abuse on social media being directed at him specifically. It's a very brave thing that he did by playing the lead in this film.
Has the backlash surprised you at all?
No, I think we knew that it was coming. There are three different ways in which the negative reaction has manifested. One is the fact that we are speaking about the initiation itself, which is a very contentious issue. Then there's the queer aspect to it, which also generates some strong reactions. Then my own status as a privileged white outsider telling the story is also something that's contentious. There's certainly quite a complex set of reactions going on around the film at the moment. But all of these things we were always conscious of right at the beginning when we started this process. I certainly hesitated for a long time before I resolved to go through with this, precisely because of these things. I do think the outsider thing is an important conversation, and certainly I don't want to dismiss it.
How does the film tie into South African society in a broader sense?
The experience that somebody has going through this initiation depends, to a large extent, on where they're from and how much money they have. What you see in the film is the city kid being afforded a certain kind of privilege and a certain degree of protection because of who his father is — because of money, really.
South Africa has one of the most economically polarized communities in the world. We have huge wealth but also extreme poverty. One of the great frustrations post-apartheid is that the poorest of the poor are still a black majority. There's a frustration that's percolating, and a post-apartheid generation that is becoming quite angry about the situation. With that comes a certain racial tension. You have a white minority that is still relatively middle-class or affluent, because real transformation hasn't occurred. There's just been a transfer of power from one white minority to another. There is still a feeling that the majority of black South Africans are struggling to get ahead, or to move beyond financial incarceration. Hopefully you can feel some of those tensions in the film.
"The Wound" opens today at Film Forum in New York.