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The very existence of a film like The Wound (Inxeba) within the South African film sector is remarkable. Johannesburg-based writer-director John Trengrove crafted the gay-themed narrative to, “push back against clichéd stereotypes of black masculinity perpetuated inside and outside of African cinema.” Central to the film is the tribal circumcision ceremony called Ukwaluka, a rite-of-passage tradition practiced by the Xhosa men during which teenage ‘initiates’ are mentored by young men (khankathas), who nurse them through the trying ordeal. With The Wound building momentum ahead of the US award season (at time of writing, it is shortlisted for the Foreign Film Oscar), Trengrove spoke to SCREEN-SPACE from Sao Paolo, Brazil, about the controversial and frank drama that questions and challenges the perception of the male-dominated African society…

SCREEN-SPACE: When you first started shopping the script around, what reaction did you get from the South African film industry as whole, and perhaps most importantly, the Xhosa people. Was this kind of depiction of their young men something they were immediately open to exploring?

From the beginning there was a strong traditionalist resistance to the idea of the film. We were seen as audacious for even suggesting that same-sex behaviour happens in these kinds of spaces. Of course, all our research showed the opposite, and there was, from the onset, many champions of the project, both from within and outside the Xhosa culture. From an industry standpoint, many colleagues thought we were committing commercial suicide. Who would watch a gay African film? Ironically it's precisely that intersection - a story about same sex desire set in the context of a traditional African custom - that has given the film all it's traction.

SCREEN-SPACE: You create a very volatile dynamic - a depiction of repressed homosexual passion within the context of a brutal and traditional passage into manhood. Was the search for your leads a particularly difficult period? Finding actors to explore the darker aspects of this narrative?

It was a long process. We knew we wouldn't be able to attract mainstream actors, for fear of a public backlash. For this reason we auditioned many non-professionals. We took more than a year and put hundreds of young men on camera. We had a rule...everyone we cast had to be first language Xhosa speakers and had to have first hand experience of the initiation. All three of the leads are very special individuals who, for their own personal reasons, decided to participate. They knew they'd face criticism, but they also believed in what the film was about. (Pctured, above; lead actor Nakhane Touré, centre, in The Wound).

SCREEN-SPACE: What discussions were had when deciding upon the degree to which the film would depict the circumcision ritual?

The community in the film are a real Xhosa community who practice the ritual twice a year. They had complete carte blanche to represent themselves and the ritualised sequences were shot as documentary with no directorial intervention. The most sensitive and taboo details of the practice were omitted. We were never interested in making an expose. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Comparisons are inevitable to Oscar-winner Moonlight. Are there films that have influenced you as a storyteller that we can see in The Wound?

Many films along the way. In particular I was watching a lot of Carlos Reygadas (Japón, 2002; Silent Light, 2007; Post Tenebras Lux, 2012) while I was writing the film. 

SCREEN-SPACE: The ritual takes place within a traditional tribal setting, but there are highways and power lines, and one very funny sequence about the social status of Blackberrys vs. iPhones. This old-vs.-new societal depiction strengthens the duality of the films themes, yes?

Absolutely. It was very interesting to explore the ways in which this ancient ritual rubs up against a westernised industrial world. There is another idea in the film, which is that individual freedom and self-identifying as gay is a middle class privilege. Also, from a traditionalist perspective, that being urbanised intersects with notions of whiteness and softness. (Pictured, left; co-stars Niza Jay Ncoyini, left, and Bongile Mantsai in The Wound).

SCREEN-SPACE: You use very tight framing, very intimate camera angles. When you go wide at the end, as the two protagonists look out over the highway, it is quite a shock. How would you describe the filming style you and your DOP employ?

We wanted to resits the "National Geographic" approach of fetishizing bodies against the African landscape. To put it bluntly, the characters of our story don't care about the landscape in the way that outsiders might. The story is about these men's bodies and what their bodies mean in a social context. For this reason it made sense to stay close to the characters rather than keeping an observational distance. I also liked the sense of claustrophobia this created. We needed to feel confined in spite of the wide, open spaces. On the few occasions when we did use wides, the effect is jarring rather than harmonious, as you suggest.

THE WOUND begins its Australian season on February 8 in select cinemas via distributor IC/OT Entertainment.

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