While Donald J Trump was being inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America, the South African film The Wound was making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah – the first of its multiple screenings at the world’s most popular independent film showcase and springboard for future Oscar nominees. That it played during the time Trump was officially sworn in doesn’t seem to have apparent significance, but the ethos behind making The Wound is the kind that’ll become more necessary in an era of a leader who touts discriminatory rhetoric that reverberates across the world.
Among critics at Sundance, The Wound has been lauded for being a brave film in its depiction of homosexuality within the secretive Xhosa imitation ritual of ulwaluko. Made by director John Trengove, the film is the first feature-length film for the commercials professional, after he directed a short based on the subject called The Goat. The film explores the clash between culture and modernity in the story of a gay boy being sent to take part in the traditional rite of passage for African men.
Trengove, who travelled with the film to Sundance this past week, along with the film’s star Nakhane Toure, says it’s a great validation to have the film premiere at the festival, given the challenges he faced tackling the sensitive subject matter.
“I think mostly because of the kind of film we were making,” he says, sitting inside one of the many pop-ups on the festival’s busy Main Street. “It’s an uncompromising film, and many people thought we were crazy to make it. So to then bring it to a platform like this, it’s amazing,” he continues. “Making a film – any film – is a lot of hard work, endless nights and months of thinking its never going to happen, lots of blood, sweat and tears, so it’s exciting to be here.”
On a practical level, he acknowledges the exposure a major international film festival like Sundance provides for a South African film. “The scope for the film is much wider, and broader now,” he says. This, he says, plays into his aim for the movie, which was shot in the Eastern Cape – of wanting to change the way homosexual men are shown on the big screen in African cinema.
Trengove, a white male, admits he’s an outsider to the world shown in his movie, but he says he committed himself to staying cognisant of that while navigating the complexities around the ritual. “It was very challenging, but also very rewarding because by stepping into this space, some phenomenal collaborations took place,” he says.
He’s referring to working with Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu, his co-scriptwriters, and the cast of Toure, the SAMA-winning singer in his first acting role, theatre star Bongile Mantsai and youngster Niza Jay Ncoyini. Trengove says each had their own reason for wanting to be part of the film, fully aware it would stroke ire and contention among many South Africans – even before they watch the film.
“It can’t be under-estimated what a big decision that was,” says Trengove. “Each has their own particular reason for doing this. I am very protective and will defend their decisions with my life.” For Toure, who says he’s already experienced some backlash on social media for being in a film that lifts the veil off a cloaked tradition, it was the authenticity of the story that compelled him to sign on for his first acting role. “What I found poignant is that the story isn’t as alien as people would like to pretend it is. That’s really the trigger here – the sore-point for people.”
His reason goes deeper still. “Because some of these things that happened in the movie happen to me when I went up the mountain,” says Toure, who was born in Alice in the Eastern Cape.“When word got out that I might be homosexual, I found I was suddenly being solicited. So, it’s not from a film, or a fictional or academic point of view that I know this, it’s a personal one. It happened to me and it happened to others.”
Toure, who’s trip to Park City, Utah, was his first ever to the US, says Trengove initially approached him to do the music for the movie. “I went to him with all these ideas – talking about Bjork’s Medulla album, and the way she works with voice, and how I planned to do something like that too.” When Trengove suggested he audition, he did. The involvement of Mgqolozana and Bengu were central to his reasons too. “They had huge impact on the authenticity of the story – how the characters and the culture are depicted,” he says.
As for Trengove not being Xhosa himself, Toure says he didn’t feel that was an issue. “I think he brings value because he’s a good director – full stop. John couldn’t have done any of this without any of us. 90 percent of the people who worked on the script where Xhosa and had experience with the ritual. That crosses a big box,” he says.
Sundance is the first stop for The Wound, and it’ll move on to make its European debut at the Berlin Film Festival next month, before likely doing more of the film festival circuit. But for Trengove, the film’s biggest achievement is still to come – playing to local audiences with a cinema release planned for the second half of this year.
“All the exposure and international recognition is really great,” he says. “But if I have a wish for this film it would be to start a conversation in South Africa, and perhaps, if at some point a gay Xhosa kid sees this and says that wasn’t my experience at all, but be inspired to write their own story, that’s potentially the most amazing thing that could come out of all this.”
I jump onto the train but as the doors close, I realize it’s not the one I need. Looking at my phone to re-arrange my route, my eye catches this kid in a hoodie playing with a Rubik’s Cube. I watch as the kid turns the sides around, over and over, clicking and clacking, and boom, gets all the colours aligned! I look around to see if anyone else saw, but it’s just me with my jaw on the ground.
Kid hands the cube back to the woman sitting next to him, and she re-configures it, eyes cast towards the ceiling, as if her mind is far away.
I watch again in awe, as the kid turns the sides over and over, clicking and clacking. This time the sound of fingers working quickly and deftly has attracted the attention of more eyes, and then, boom! Kid gets it again! Those of us who witnessed it, look at each other in delight.
Kid hands the cube back to the woman and she mixes the colours back up again, eyes once again cast towards the ceiling. “This is better than show-time,” I say out loud. To which this guy with his pants half-hanging down his body replies: “I’m about to take the cap around for this kid.”
Going for a third time, the kid clicks and clacks the cube, this time all eyes in the train are on him. Boom! He does it once more! We all cheer! And clap! And hurrah! And the kid gets a fright and looks up, as the hood slips to reveal a face and I realize he’s a SHE (I shoulda known!)
An elderly lady hands her a dollar bill. “I could only ever get two sides right,” she says. “Well done to you, young lady.” And then someone says: “Merry Christmas!” and another chimes in, “yeah, Happy Holidays!”
I smile and high five the kid as I get off to go catch the right train. Walking into it feeling all warm and fuzzy, I’m hit by the smell of urine and there are fries smashed all over the floor.
Oh, New York City, this love only deeper grows.
It’s my New York-a-versary!
Six years ago, I moved here from South Africa, to live a life based out of the Big Apple – just as I’d once dreamed of doing.
As a journalist, I came to New York on the hope and the dream of interviewing Meryl Streep over lunch (at some divine restaurant in the West Village, or you know, anywhere). Of course, I knew it would be hard. I knew I would be giving up so many safety nets – a regular salary, my trusted hair-dresser, my gym membership (Melrose Arch Virgin Active had become a second home to me), an entire industry I’d worked long and hard to become a part of, dear friends, and Greek-style family lunches.
But I knew I had to do it. That fire was burning inside and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I came looking for adventure and to broaden the proverbial horizons of my career as an entertainment journalist. I came looking for interviews with actors and musicians I admired, for stories about South Africans beyond Charlize and Elon achieving wonderful heights, for opportunities to see concerts, take in museums and Broadway shows and be exposed to more cinema than I ever had been before.
A year and a half into my time here I found something I was not looking for. Not at all.
Begins with ‘r’, and ends with ‘unning.’
I’ve spoken about this before, in a recent episode of The Rundown, and a couple of posts before, but thanks to the New York City Marathon and the inspiration (that still doesn’t feel like the right word) from a South African NY Times photojournalist who took part in the marathon a year after he lost both his legs in Afghanistan, I started running. Properly. Outside. Longer than the usual 20-minutes on a treadmill I’d done before.
Like many of the friends I’ve made since becoming a “runner” I realised we all have our story of how we came to running. Or how it came to us. Which is funny, because it’s something we were innately born to do, but often the joy gets knocked out of it, after being dished out as punishment one too many times. Or in my case, being tripped up and falling in a school race and being told I’m not good at it.
Crossing my first finish line was the opening chapter of my love affair with running. More than just a physical feat, I saw finishing the NYC Marathon as somewhat of a test. If I could get through it, I would be okay in NYC.
Because living here is not easy. Not easy at all.
With its high rents. And South Africa’s terrible exchange rate.
With its multitude of people. And very little space.
With its seven-girl-to-every-guy ratio.
With its many Choose Your Own Adventure options. Too many options, sometimes.
I engineered my life to be here. No one sent me here. No one secured me an apartment or helped me transfer my life here. I wanted this. But I couldn’t have foreseen the challenges life as a freelancer in a new city would bring with it. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, waking up excited yet daunted by what each new day brings with it.
Through it all – late-paid invoices, interviews with Oprah and Spielberg, unanswered emails taken too personally, broken relationships and solid ones, many slices of late-night $1 pizza, friends who’ve become family, one-night trips to LA and Miami, over-extended credit cards – running has become the rock, my anchor.
When most have a 9-5 to go to, I have 5-9 — miles, that is. I know that no matter where I am, or what is happening, I can run.
It keeps me on track when nothing else does or can. I’ve tried all I can to establish a routine, and then I go to London for a Captain America junket (I know, boo hoo) or a big US story breaks and I’m filing for News at 3am. But running is my routine.
I’ve tried to picture my life over the next five years. It’s hard to imagine most of the time, at the rapid rate journalism is changing, and I’m trying to figure out my space and place within it all. I’m not new to forging a different path for myself – I did it in South Africa – but being overseas and without the comforts of home make it a little more terrifying. Running is the vision for my future that I can’t yet see. I catch glimpses, however small they may be, of what could happen, and how.
In running, I scratch the surface of who I could become. It’s the hope I have for my life and for the lives of others around me. Running is the dream I never knew I could dream. It takes me beyond what I imagined for myself when my imagination doesn’t seem to want to work. Little 4’11 me qualify to run Boston? You betcha! What else?
And running is my reminder. It allows me to tap into the part of me I most recognize, that sometimes gets buried under piles of dresses I’be worn one too many times and crippling self-doubt. The part that is alive and full of excitement and enthusiasm for life.
It reminds me of little victories I’ve forgotten when I am my own worst critic, which is most of the time. When I forget what I am capable of, I run to remind myself: I’ve done it before, I can do it again. Every time I do something I think, truly think, I couldn’t do, it’s like my muscles send messages to my mind that I can go on, and farther.
I do it to outrun the thoughts – the negative thoughts that have thrived on uncertainty and internal questions over my abilities and skills that threaten to become the default setting in my life as a freelancer. I run to re-set my own heart beat, re-set my thoughts. I’ve gotten myself this far, with my legs and my heart – surely I can keep myself going. Because running is a clear sign when there are none for me to see.
It connects me to the Earth. It makes me remember I’m not alone. Truly. With each step I take, I make New York a little more like home, places become familiar, the faces too. Wherever my work takes me, I run. More often than not, carving out my own culturally-rooted route, knowing I am connected to footprints of those who have come before. Even as I travel and work alone.
On a run once, a friend told me running isn’t going to pat you on the back, and say, “good job, well done.” But the confidence it has given me to face the challenges of my life keeps me coming back for more. Even when it’s hard. Even though I struggle with it more than I don’t. Even though I am not a “traditional” runner and have been told I don’t look like a runner. (It’s my height, isn’t it? Too tall, I know, haha)
It seems so easy to remember, and yet, how easy to forget that breaking something down into the smallest of steps is the way to best get through it. And to best get through this life. Each time I make it through a run that’s particularly hard, I not only know this, but I feel it to be true.
I know the route I’ve chosen is hard. Since discovering my love of running, I’ve started to make peace with the fact that pain and challenges are a given. Testimony doesn’t come without the test, and all that. Struggle, however, I’m learning, I can choose to forego. Just like with running, in life, I’ve gotten a little better at expecting hardship to pop up along the way, so now I tell it to lace up, we’re heading out. And just like running, living in New York is an oh-so rewarding experience. Just like running, I’ve done and seen things here I never thought I would ever do. Like watch Lady Gaga play the closing down party of the iconic Roseland Ballroom. Like listen to Hugh Jackman tell me what he learnt out of reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Like stand next to couple hundred thousand other bodies as the NYE ball dropped in Times Square. Like be in the audience when Trevor Noah first appeared on The Daily Show.
When the rent is due, I run.
When I don’t know how to answer a text, I run.
When I’m overwhelmed by all the things I want to do to make sure I live life to the fullest, I run.
When I don’t know how long I’ll be in New York for, I run.
Onward, I run.
“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
– Tom Wolfe