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Q&A with director of The Wound John Trengove

Earlier this week, The Wound, directed by John Trengove was selected as South Africa’s official entry into the Oscars, in the category of best foreign language film. The film follows Xolani, a lonely factory worker who travels to the rural mountains with the men of his community to initiate a group of teenage boys into manhood.

It’s worth noting that the film has been extremely controversial since the first trailers were released, so that has, and will continue to have an impact on how the story of this film unfolds in the public eye over the coming months.

Note: This is a standard interview formed as part of the press kit for The Wound.

What drew you to the subject matter?

I was interested in what happens when groups of men come together and organise themselves outside of society and the codes of their everyday lives. I wanted to show the intense emotional and physical exchanges that are possible in these spaces and how repressing strong feelings leads to a kind of toxicity and violence.

As an outsider to this culture, it was important that I approach this story from the perspective of characters who are themselves outsiders, who struggle to conform to the status quo that they are a part of.

 What was the process of writing ‘The Wound’?

We started with a lot of research. We spent time in the Eastern Cape which is where the ritual is mostly practiced. We listened to many testimonials and conversations with Xhosa men who had been through the ritual – gay men, straight men, some urbanised and affluent, others from remote rural areas.

These stories sparked our earliest ideas about the narrative. Researching the ritual brought up conflicting feelings in me. You hear stories about how it can be a breeding ground for homophobic and hyper-masculine behaviour.

At the same time, I got to see first-hand the transformative effect it had on some men who went through it. In a world that is under-fathered, there is something profound about a ritual that shows a young boy his place in the world of men.

The Wound Director John Trengove
The Wound Director John Trengove

How do you navigate the politics of being a white filmmaker depicting marginal characters with realities different from your own?

As much as possible, I tried to disrupt my own preconceptions. Like most middle-class audiences who watch the film, it would be easy for me to look at Xolani and say, here is a gay character that is repressed and deserves to be emancipated from his oppressive community and express himself as an individual.

I resisted those kinds of resolutions for his character and tried instead to present his problem for what it is, which is big and difficult, without clear answers. The character of Kwanda comes closest to expressing those values, but he’s also the problem.

His preconceptions create jeopardy and crisis for others who have much more to lose than him. This was my way of saying, ‘I don’t have the answers and my own values don’t necessarily apply here.’

Given the controversy of the ritual in South Africa, how do you think it will be received?

Ukwaluka is a taboo ritual and representing it in the way we have is contentious. We knew from the start that we’d spark strong reactions from traditionalists. But there was also a lot of encouragement from a younger Xhosa generation who seems eager to break the silence around the initiation which is seen to perpetuate some of the dangers associated with it.

It’s a vast and nuanced practice, and there remains a lot to be said about the ritual that is not my place to talk about; things that need to be said from within the culture.

Hopefully ‘The Wound’ could spark some of that. Maybe a gay Xhosa kid will watch it one day and go, ‘actually, that wasn’t my experience at all’ and be inspired to write his own story.

You watch the trailer for The Wound below:

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Editor-in-Chief at BTG Lifestyle. For cinema.