A lonely factory worker traveling to his rural homeland in the mountains of South Africa’s Eastern Cape marks the entry point into the astonishing world of “The Wound,” John Trengove’s powerful debut feature, which opens the Panorama section of the 67th Berlin Film Festival following its world premiere in Sundance.
The film centers on Xolani, one of the mentors tasked with looking after a group of teenage boys taking part in the traditional Xhosa rite of passage. Through his relationship with Kwanda, a coddled initiate from the big city, and Vija, a childhood friend who struggles to reciprocate Xolani’s love, “The Wound” offers an unflinching examination of sexuality, masculinity and cultural identity.
With the movie’s spotlight at the Panorama, which has historically had a focus on gay, lesbian and transgender films, “The Wound” offers audiences a captivating portrait of what Trengove describes as “alternative forms of African masculinity.”
“If you look at African cinema in general…the depictions of black masculinity are so incredibly narrow and very one-dimensional,” he says. “There was a real absence of complex and alternative male characters, and an absence of queer imagery in South African film.”
“The Wound” was co-written by Trengove, Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu, and stars Nakhane Touré, an acclaimed musician and novelist making his acting debut, along with Bongile Mantsai and Niza Jay Ncoyini.
Produced by Urucu Media, the film is a South Africa/Germany/Netherlands/France co-production, and will be represented at Berlin’s European Film Market by global sales agent Pyramide.
The film offers a daring exploration of a taboo world. The Xhosa initiation ceremonies typically take place in remote areas and are off-limits to outsiders, the often perilous conditions making them the focus of intense public scrutiny in South Africa each year. According to local media, at least 23 young men died during initiation rites in December.
Yet Trengove says he didn’t want to “hijack the film” by presenting a sensationalized tabloid version of rites that are often misunderstood by critics. “The ritual is vast,” he says. “But most of it is really not my space to talk about.”
As a queer filmmaker, he says he was able instead to “make a certain type of contribution and disruption” by focusing on same-sex desire.
“I was interested in what happens in the company of men when they organize themselves outside of the codes of their everyday lives,” he says. “There’s a very rich and dynamic range of experience, from violence to power struggles, right through to intimacy and sexuality.”
At the movie’s emotional core is Xolani, a conflicted arrival from the city who according to Trengove embodies his own middle-class value system, with “liberal ideas about individual freedom.” Thrust against the traditional values of his Xhosa community, though, Xolani is forced to make difficult choices that put those liberal ideas to the test.
Once he recognized that the film’s hero is, in fact, an antagonist to his own community, Trengove was able to unlock his own complicated role as an outsider bringing this story to the screen.
“It’s been a very uncomfortable and somewhat problematic relationship, and it’s something that I, throughout the process of making the film, had to remain conscious of,” he says.
Crafting the movie around the initiation ritual posed other problems. While South Africa boasts a number of accomplished Xhosa actors in film and theater, most were wary of depicting the ritual onscreen—a taboo, says Trengove, that was considered even more transgressive than the same-sex love scenes in the movie.
But throughout the long process of researching the film, which included hundreds of interviews with Xhosa men, Trengove noticed a shift in attitudes. “While there was a resistance from the more conservative traditionalists, there was also a very strong desire amongst a new generation of Xhosa men to speak about the ritual,” he says.
Integral to the creative process was the collaboration with co-writer Thando Mgqolozana, a Xhosa novelist who depicted the world of initiations in his book “A Man Who is Not a Man.”
Hoping to avoid making what he describes as “a generic, half-baked piece of cultural appropriation,” Trengove also turned to the local Xhosa community where the movie was lensed, who he credits with “breath[ing] a degree of authenticity into the film.”
While some were at first skeptical of the project, he was surprised to find “there was absolutely no resistance” once shooting was underway. Each member of the all-male cast had experienced the initiation ritual firsthand, and the script was often revised on the fly as they added their own memories and interpretations to the story.
“It was kind of a point of pride,” says Trengove, of the community’s reaction to the film, “[that] if we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do it right.”