The Wound (Inxeba) has garnered 19 international awards and was nominated for an Oscar.

TBB’s Be Manzini interviews Director and Cowriter John Trengrove (Hopeville) about his inspiration and process on a film which has received as much recognition for its controversial subject matter as its storytelling prowess.

1# What would your elevator pitch for the film be?

It’s a film set in a rights of passage to manhood, a particular initiation widely practiced in South Africa, but the story follows a closeted romantic relationship between two caregivers who look after the initiates on this process. The story really takes off when an outwardly gay initiate from the city discovers their secret and from that point onwards the stakes begin to rise as their secret is threatened with exposure.

In a nutshell that’s what the story is but its intention starting with Batana Vundla, and myself who is a Xhosa producer, and gay filmmaker like myself we really wanted to make a queer South African film. Because of Batana’s background, we began speaking about the initiation as it is so widely practiced and looms quite large over the culture. Yes, it’s fraught with controversy and there is lots of contention around it these days but is still something very crucial and central. What we felt was to tell a tale of same sex desire in this particular context; rites to manhood process in an all male secretive environment would be a very interesting thing to do. It opens up the story to a lot more than being about queer love. We really get to grapple with ideas about identity, patriarchy, masculinity and toxic masculinity.

2# The film is a love story, however, I was taken aback at how violent and aggressive the interactions were, especially with the rarity of depictions of same sex relationships and Black male tenderness in general. Were you worried about the audience reaction to that, or as you said this being set in the context of a sacred ritual in South African culture and other parts of Africa or arguably the Jewish community where circumcision is important?

There is a lot of contention around the depiction of the initiation, more so because I’m a white man. So I worked very closely with Xhosa co-writers and an Xhosa cast who are men who have been through the initiation themselves. So in a way, the cast and the writers’ boundaries are the film’s boundaries.

The film could be seen as transgressive showing things a lot of people believe shouldn’t be seen or shown but that was never our intention. We consciously said Nelson Mandela has written about it, there have been novels on it and we set our boundaries within that. We deliberately didn’t want to expose or show anything beyond what was already generally known.  That was our framework to approaching something that was very very delicate.

The circumcision aspect of it looks violent and brutal to an outsider but in reality, has an ancient tradition behind it. These men who are referred to as surgeons are highly skilled and there is a lot of training and expertise that goes into qualifying to assume these positions. Then the caregiving, although it’s not happening within a hospital aesthetic there is a huge amount of care that goes into the role. The interesting thing is that there is an outsiders perspective of a brutality when implemented correctly is nuanced and advanced. In this situation that is so painful and extreme, there is an incredible intimate exchange between the initiate and the caregiver. This is where men are allowed to exist in this intimate proximity in the culture that doesn’t really exist at any other time.

There is a certain kind of code and behavior wherever men organise themselves in isolation. There are things that are very well documented and things hardly ever spoken about. This was an opportunity to bring that range into one project. It has to be said that as South Africans we are confronted with violence in all kinds of manifestations, daily. I don’t think within the cultural or historical framework we have it was avoidable in this film.

3# Yes, but the violence and aggression within the love relationship – though you can’t deny on some level that Xolani and Vija [played by Nakhane Touré and Bongile Mantsai respectively] love each other and they are willing to do anything for each other?

That’s the nature of toxic masculinity. If you look at a character like Vija he is conditioned to behave in a particular way, it’s almost a theatre where he performs his masculinity but he has no equipment to process emotion. So when he is confronted by the love that he has for Xolani it’s something that he doesn’t know how to express or deal with other than through violence. So there is a tragedy in a way that men are raised, confined to a box where they are not allowed to express, show or deal with emotions. A crudeness that steps in, a violent shorthand, a knee-jerk reaction to overwhelming feelings of the need to separate, to put that back in a box at all costs. That idea was certainly central to his character.

… this sense that real men don’t cry… I understand that the Xhosa king attempted to get the film banned yet at the same time it was nominated for a London Film Festival award and an Oscar! So it feels again like this dichotomy…

It’s been a very wild ride! I don’t know if I can speak about this openly, sorry, as it’s a bit of a dance with the traditionalist contingent. I feel that the film has a contribution to make, without insulting or taking away from the culture, the film is not a critique. It speaks about the nature of masculinity. How are we raising our sons? I deliberately use a collective ‘we’ as it’s not just an Xhosa conversation it affects everybody it’s about all men. We knew this was going to be a controversial and divisive project but you are never are quite prepared. Perhaps on an abstract intellectual level and then when the hostility starts coming at you it’s another story.  Nakhane [as the lead] in particular, but we have all had to develop a thick skin…

Nakhane Touré in the film “The Wound.” (Kino Lorber)

4# Do you see your work as activism?

I’ve met real activists who I have a huge respect for how they live and what they sacrifice so I wouldn’t call myself that. I call myself a storyteller, the difference is that I’m not out to push an agenda or convince anybody of anything. What this story does is present a complicated situation in its complexity without trying to steer the audience towards one particular resolution or idea so if anything it’s about opening up and bringing audiences to the brink of something difficult I think that is what good stories do.

5# Your father famously represented Nelson Mandela and it made me wonder about the parallels between being a courtroom lawyer and being an orator through storytelling. Do you think he has influenced you artistically through his work?

I think there is a lot of him in me, it’s difficult for me to see clearly how that manifests but before I was a filmmaker I had aspirations to be an actor and theatre-maker. He would always say to me being an advocate is a lot like being an actor! I’m very proud of him and the work that he does. We occupy very different worlds so we see each other at a distance but we appreciate each other for who and what we are.

6# On acting this is Nakhane’s debut, he is well known in South Africa as a music artist and here plays the lead. I’m curious about the casting process… 

The more established Xhosa actors and celebrities were very cautious of this project, certainly, there was a lot of interest, but a lot of resistance and fear of potential backlash from their fan base. So we took a lot of time looked at a lot of people and non-professional actors to cast this film properly. Nakhane I met because someone heard his music and introduced it to me because they thought Nakhane would be a good choice to score the film. I ended up not using music in the film at all but at that first meeting I had this distinct feeling he would be amazing on camera, there is something enigmatic about him. At the time I’d been writing the script and wrestling with this character who is so full of tension and contradictions, I needed a very special kind of performer who could convey that. Nakhane could. From that point onwards I started writing for him and that’s how he got the role.

Niza Jay is a drama student who plays the initiate, Bongile Mantsai is a theatre actor who I saw in a play so this is one of his first film roles. The community of men you see in the film are all non-actors, a real Xhosa community that enact this ritual on a regular basis. The same goes for the initiates, our casting director went on Facebook, to shopping malls and nightclubs and literally put hundreds and hundreds of young men on camera. A prerequisite, they must be a first language Xhosa speaker with first-hand experience of the initiation. As it was a question of engaging with these men, it was a long process but one that paid off. The heart and soul of the film stem from this unusual process of finding these very extraordinary and particular individuals who were brave enough and interesting enough to what to participate in a film like this.

7# Tell us more about the collaborative writing process …

I knew there would be a huge amount of criticism and questions around me, my role, my legitimacy, my authority, being able to tell this story. I deliberated for a long time then decided as an artist I do believe that outsiders offer a new perspective on the familiar. However, as a white man, there is baggage, a history of privilege that also needs to be accounted for. So I undertook to challenge myself and my own preconceptions most of all.

The primary collaboration was with Thando Kholosana and me, he is a novelist. Interestingly his first novel ‘A Man Who Is Not A Man’, was about the initiation; he is also Xhosa and has been through the process. So because of that, I reached out to him. How we worked is I was immersing myself in a lot of research and speaking to as many men that I could about their first-hand experiences trying to get a feeling of experiences in the broadest possible sense before I even started developing the story. But as this was happening I had ideas for character and plot and I would meet with Thando and filter those ideas through him and his personal experience. He would come back and suggest possible scenarios or ideas or ways to dramatise what I was interested in doing. Thando also wrote the first draft of the script.

Towards the end I was fine-tuning the dramatics and the structure but I would always bring it back to Thando and he would also translate the parts in Xhosa, he did the final language check of the script. Malusi Bengu was someone we brought on board and facilitated parts of the process at different times and did some of the research. The research overlapped and dovetailed into the writing, financing and casting of the film because casting was also about speaking to young men, listening to their stories and putting them on camera. Then bringing them together in groups to share and taking some of those ideas into scripting. There was a lot of cross-pollination.

Director John Trengove “The Wound” South Africa.
Photo by Jose Hermosillo. Copyright FestivalinLA 2017.

8# How long was the research/ pre-production?

I’d say from the time we started thinking about the film 6 years ago; actively writing and developing about a 5 year process and financing about 4 years and that includes shooting the film up until the end of 2016 and the last year or so has been about promotion and releasing the film.

9# What was the biggest reward and biggest challenge of the work?

The burden and struggle of working with an Xhosa speaking cast in a language that I’m not familiar with, I had to defer a lot of decisions to them in terms of what we should show and how we show it. Difficult to do as a director when you are trying to steer the project to a certain end goal, but it was a necessary part of the process. If I tried to funnel the story through only what I could understand then it would show my own limitations.

Which brings me to the bigger reward, unlike anything else I’ve done I can watch this film and still be amazed at things I see. Because what is in there is bigger than my own imagination. By far the hardest thing I have ever done. It was about going on a journey of discovery and self-discovery that I’m very grateful for.

10# South Africa is often seen as the great hope in terms of film… the high production values the varied landscape.  I saw your work with the wonderful Desmond Dube, which was a very different articulation and made me wonder what your hopes and dreams are for the industry?

We are a young country and there are a lot of unarticulated stories! As a culture and a film industry, we are poised on a Golden Age of cinema if and only if, we are willing to be authentic. We have everything we need, but if we emulate other models or only make escapism or clichéd work then no. If we harness the moment and look at where we are and who we are, look at ourselves honestly, take risks, then the sky’s the limit.

Watch ‘The Wound’

London cinemas: Friday 4th May ~ Thursday 10th May