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.”