Making The Wound

John Trengove talks about the challenges of his coming-of-age drama.

by Amber Wilkinson

Xolani (Nakhane Touré) and Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) as Caregiver and Initiate in The Wound. Trengove: 'I was conscious that it needed to be as raw as possible and one of the ways that I did that was to constantly stay with character'
Xolani (Nakhane Touré) and Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) as Caregiver and Initiate in The Wound. Trengove: 'I was conscious that it needed to be as raw as possible and one of the ways that I did that was to constantly stay with character' Photo: Urucu Media
John Trengove’s The Wound may at first glance look like a familiar coming-of-age story, as a group of young Xhosa initiates prepare for the Ukwaluka ritual - that marks the start of their adulthood with circumcision and the subsequent healing. But the film develops into a much more complex interrogation of masculinity, as gay young initiate Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) has a self-confidence and sense of identity that threatens his Caregiver Xolani (Nakhane Touré), who has hidden his homosexuality from his community for years. We caught up with Trengove at Sundance to talk about his film, which also plays in the Panorama section of Berlin Film Festival this month.

Amber Wilkinson: Given the taboo subject of the Ukwaluka initiation ritual, how difficult was it to acquire a cast for your film?

John Trengove: We anticipated, and it was confirmed that there were a lot of high-profile actors who didn't want to touch the project, not because they weren't interested but through fear of a backlash from their fans. We started the casting process more than a year before we shot, partly because we anticipated this sort of reaction and partly because we wanted to make as many inroads we could into the kinds of communities where this ritual is practised. We auditioned and interviewed literally hundreds of Xhosa men. That was another pre-requisite. I felt that as an outsider myself that I wanted to make sure that every person we cast was a first-language Xhosa speaker with their own first-hand experience of the initiation.

The three leads, we have Bongile Mantsai, who plays Vija, the alpha male, and he is probably the most experienced, but he’s very much a highly respected theatre actor - I think this may be just his second film role. Then there is Nakhane Touré, who is the lead character Xolani. He's a phenomenal artist, singer/songwriter and novelist but a first-time professional actor. Then Niza Jay Ncoyini, who plays the young initiate Kwanda, is fresh out of drama school. All of them were new to the medium of film but not inexperienced as performers.

The Wound director John Trengove
The Wound director John Trengove Photo: Dean Hutton
The rest of the cast are mostly non-actors or first-time actors and the community of men were all non-professionals. That, in a way, was the most special experience, because we had a very meaningful interaction with these men and we had a facilitator who worked with them extensively before we shot. The thing that was very important was we said to them, 'We understand the sensitivity of the ritual we're asking you to depict, so we want you to do it as you would do it.' We didn't impose any kinds of restrictions or direction on them. We came together on the day and there would be these discussions beforehand about how it was going to happen and then they would enact it in a way that was particular to their own experiences. Myself and the cinematographer would then watch this and work out our camera angles and dramatic moments within that situation.

For example, where Kwanda questions the meaning of the ritual and he is harassed by Vija, in that scene we really wanted these guys to react as they would to a situation like that. Their comments were completely unscripted and we let those scenes run and run and run to encourage a lot of real-time reactions from this community. These are the kinds of ways that we approached the idea of casting, that we worked our way around the taboo and the unavailability of professional actors.

AW: How important were your Xhosa writing partners. I realise, it will not have escaped your notice that you are a white dude.

JT: Yes, that's a whole other question. But Thando Mgqolozana is a highly respected novelist. His first novel was about the initiation. He has been through the process himself and the film would not exist without his collaboration. To touch on the idea of my whiteness and privilege, which I think is very important, this is something obviously that I was interrogating from the very beginning and that I was being interrogated about from the very beginning. I had to be very clear in my mind that I wasn't going to try to represent a culture or practice in its entirety. There are a tremendous amount of aspects and nuance to this practice that I knew it wasn't my place to talk about. I felt that would I could contribute as a gay man and a queer filmmaker was to approach this ritual with this one particular idea in mind – same-sex desire. And, possibly, for me as an outsider, I could speak about it and approach these ideas with a little more freedom than someone within the culture. That was always my point of entry and I made sure I stuck very specifically within that one frame of reference.

The other thing, as I was writing, I went through various incarnations of the story. I initially wanted to write it from the perspective of the initiate, because I felt like he was what I was closest to. He represents a frame of reference and a set of values that I can understand and relate to. But it was always Xolani that drew me and became the most compelling. I thought, in that case, I'm going to take Kwanda and invest him with a lot of my own ideas and values about personal freedom and the rights of LGBT communities and I'll make him the antagonist.

Vija and Xolani. John Trengove: 'I felt that would I could contribute as a gay man and a queer filmmaker was to approach this ritual with this one particular idea in mind – same-sex desire'
Vija and Xolani. John Trengove: 'I felt that would I could contribute as a gay man and a queer filmmaker was to approach this ritual with this one particular idea in mind – same-sex desire' Photo: Urucu Media
AW: It makes the film more interesting. Traditionally, audiences have become attuned to young gay men in a circumstance like that becoming a victim of bullying. People might expect him to become a target but he isn't a victim because he doesn't view himself in that way. As he became a more subsidiary character, did you find he also became a stronger character?

JT: Absolutely. That was the moment when the whole story became interesting to me. This was a way of challenging a middle-class expectation of a story like this. May aim was to find ways to disrupt and problematise those assumptions. It's very easy for me as a gay man, living in an urbanised environment where I really have the freedoms you would have in Edinburgh or New York. It's easy for me to say, someone like Xolani is a victim and these are terrible injustices but it was all of those ideas that I felt I and an audience would bring to the table that I wanted to interrogate. And really to leave you with a feeling of, there is a big problem and a widening chasm, but there are no obvious solutions and whatever you think is best for someone like him, you don't really know and I don't really know.

JT: The film is also interesting because of the idea of the clash between the traditional and the modern - the drip-feed of modernity wherever you are.

It was about my own perspective and relationship to the subject matter. It would be very easy for me to romanticise this culture and set it in a very natural space. There are very few degrees of separation between what the film is and something that could be playing out 100 years ago. So the wardrobe choices and the pylons in the background were specifically put there to keep reminding the audience that we were in the here and now, in an industrialised, globalised world. I wanted to not represent it as something pure or naive or ancient but as something that is constantly rubbing up against a modern, industrial universe.

AW: You employ nature well within the film, including book ends of the waterfall. What was your approach to shooting that in terms of what to keep in to give a sense of place?

JTWhat's always appealed to me are ‘outside of society’ films, so Michael Haneke's Time Of The Wolf or Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By The Lake, these films that take urbanised characters out of their everyday lives and put them in this savage natural world. Then the storytelling challenges of how do you build these pictures of people and who they are outside of that everyday context. So those are the kind of models that I had in my head.

AW: How was the challenge of the film compared to doing theatrical work? There must be pros and cons to it.

John Trengove: 'I wanted to not represent it as something pure or naive or ancient but as something that is constantly rubbing up against a modern, industrial universe'
John Trengove: 'I wanted to not represent it as something pure or naive or ancient but as something that is constantly rubbing up against a modern, industrial universe' Photo: Urucu Media
JT: Theatre is amazing because you don't need the permission of a small village to make the film, you can just go to a room. Putting a film together, the amount of people whose buy-in is required just to get to the point where you're working with actors and developing material is vast, whereas with theatre, it's so much more immediate. I obviously have a soft spot for theatre but with film there's an immediacy with experience and reach with audience that is unparalleled. There's something about the intense voyeuristic relationship that the audience has with cinema and that proximity to character that is absolutely intoxicating.

AW: Many of the shots in the film are quite close to the actors.

JT: It ties into the landscape thing. At the back of my mind was, 'Don't make it look like National Geographic'. I was conscious that it needed to be as raw as possible and one of the ways that I did that was to constantly stay with character. These people are not interested in the beauty of the space that they find themselves in. That's not what's important to them. It would almost be a kind of betrayal of the experience to step back and drink it in and turn it into ethnographic tourism. Also, dramatically, it is about the sense of claustrophobia, this community living on top of each other and not being able to hide that was important.

AW: Have you shown the film to any of the Xhosa community?

JT: We did have some test screenings when we were busy editing the film.

AW: How was it?

JT: Amazing. I'll start with the actors' response. It was a very emotional thing when they finally saw it. I was very worried that they would finally see it and feel this was some sort of distorted vision but they've turned into the most amazing ambassadors for the process and I'd like to think they feel a sense of ownership and that they've brought something to the identity of the film that's very personal. We've also had some Xhosa audiences. Suffice to say, it's controversial. There are two strong opinions that are emerging in South Africa. There's a more traditionalist kind of criticism of what we're doing, based solely on what people know about the film at this stage, which is the trailer. You're not supposed to speak about the initiation, it's something that is intended to be quite guarded and private. Then you have the other voices - and certainly the younger members of our cast have expressed something similar - that actually it's high time to be speaking about some of these things.

The ritual is in such an interesting place in our country because it's being lambasted by the media and critics for the fact that it's seen to be dangerous and that there are young men who die every year. But really, that's a very one-sided understanding of what it is. If you take into consideration the thousands of young men who go to be initiated every year and that these casualties are really consequences of areas where there is extreme poverty and you have two caregivers looking after 100 young men but it's those incidents that trickle through to the media because of the silence that surrounds.

What is very important as well and it's something I saw with a young actor who worked on a short film we did, is that when it's done properly there is still an incredible transformative value in this ritual. Something that shows a young boy his place in the world is quite profound. I think we live in a world that's under-fathered. For me, there was no moment when I was told, ‘You’re a man now’, I feel like I'm still trying to work out what the hell that means. I think with a little more transparency and dialogue will come a better appreciation of what the ritual is. Not to romanticise it and not to demonise it but just a more complex understanding.

The Wound is screening at Berlin Film Festival on February 9, 10, 11 and 19. It does not yet have a distributor.

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