When Johannesburg-based filmmaker John Trengove set out to make his first feature about the intersection of same-sex love and a Xhosa tribal circumcision initiation, he didn't flinch. Instead, he insisted on creating the most authentic film he could, embracing the reality that it wouldn't be easy to incorporate two of the most taboo topics in South Africa. He cast only Xhosa men who had gone through the traditional initiation, and learned to adapt his directing style to work with the many non-actors who were willing to be in the film. The result is The Wound, an intentionally claustrophobic, psychological thriller about a lonely factory worker returning to the Eastern Cape.
No Film School sat down with Trengove prior to the film's Berlin premiere to talk about working with non-actors, the politics of framing the male body, and how the best work comes from pushing yourself into unfamiliar territory.
NFS: How did you come up with the concept for film?
John Trengove: It started with the idea to tell a story about same-sex desire within this very particular rite of passage into manhood. I thought those two streams could intersect in a way that was potentially very interesting and very potent. From there it was about two things. First, we did a lot of interviews and heard a lot of testimonials from men who'd been through the Xhosa initiation. We heard their stories. I was particularly interested in gay men who had gone through it. Right at the onset, it was about immersing myself in a lot of these testimonials.
Then the second was connecting with a man called Thando Mgqolozana. He’s a very interesting South African novelist who had, at that stage, already written a novel about the Xhosa initiation. He's Xhosa, he'd been through it himself, and he wrote this interesting book. After I read it, I immediately approached him. By collaborating with him, I was able to find a way to express a lot of the ideas that I was interested in within the context of this ritual.
A film still from "The Wound" by John Trengove. Courtesy Urucu Media.
NFS: Considering the ritual, which is itself taboo, and the storyline that features two gay characters, how was the process of casting?
Trengove: What we found is that a lot of the more established Xhosa actors were not willing to become involved, worrying that there might be some sort of backlash to their participation. We knew this going in, so we started the casting process more than a year before we actually shot. Cait Pansegrouw was our casting director. She was really amazing, in terms of following a non-traditional casting route. She went on Facebook and connected with people and put, literally, hundreds of young men on camera.
"A lot of the more established Xhosa actors were not willing to become involved, worrying that there might be some sort of backlash."
We really mined the non-traditional, non-professional route, and the rule that we set of ourselves is that every person that we cast had to be Xhosa. They had to have gone through the initiation themselves, have a first hand understanding. This was important to me, as an outsider, that the people on screen be representing something that was real to them. It was a long process of casting the net very wide, but I think, ultimately, it's something that paid off. We found amazing people to be in the film, not just our leads, and not just our supports, but right down to the extras. The community of men that you see are all Xhosa men.
A film still from "The Wound" by John Trengove. Cortesy Urucu Media.
NFS: Did your directing approach change in order to get performances from what ended up being a cast with a lot of non-actors?
Trengove: It was very much a question of saying to them, "Please do this the way in which you would do it." I didn't dictate how things had to happen, or where people should stand, or in what order things should happen. It was very much them taking the space and enacting it the way in which they felt it should be. So we managed to turn it around, almost into a point of pride for these men. We said, "Okay, we understand the sensitivity of what you're doing and for that reason we want to give you the power to enact it in the way that you feel comfortable doing, and to represent yourselves in the way that you feel comfortable.”
There’s a scene around the campfire, where one of the main characters, Kwanda, is quite provocative. He speaks out and challenges the codes of masculinity. We let the men react in the way that they wanted to. We kept the camera rolling, we encouraged that conflict and those nerve endings to begin to bristle, and for those comments to come. It was an extension of that idea: react in the way that you would, that feels real to you.
NFS: The film all takes place outdoors, in a mountain camp setting where Xhosa men would traditionally spend time as part of the initiation into manhood. Was the landscape an integral part of telling this story?
Trengove: I spent a lot of time in the Eastern Cape doing research and familiarizing myself with, among other things, the landscape. We ended up shooting outside of Johannesburg in a spot that had a very similar kind of aesthetic to Queenstown where the story is set. We did that partly for financial reasons, but also because we felt that shooting in the heartland of the Xhosa community was potentially problematic, and posed some security risks.
At the same time, I didn't want to turn the landscape into a big thing. I felt like that would be almost like cultural tourism, or it might be something that a white middle-class audience would find very attractive. I felt that in order to get to a more authentic place, I needed the film to stay with the characters. The landscape is there, you're sort of aware of it. But very seldom in the film do we step back and show the natural beauty. I wanted to stay very much in the almost claustrophobic spaces of the characters.
A film still from "The Wound" by John Trengove. Courtesy Urucu Media.
NFS: There aren't many grandiose landscape shots. Rather, the camera seems to always have the main subject in the frame. Can you elaborate on that strategy of the "claustrophobic" space as you describe it, and the rest of the style for the film?
Trengove: I knew that I wanted the camera to be very close to the characters. I was always interested in this idea of following characters through a space in close physical proximity. The story is so much about these characters' bodies and what those bodies mean in a social, and political, and personal, and intimate context. It was always about that. It was about spending time up-close to Xolani, in particular.
"I didn't want to turn the landscape into a big thing. I felt like that would be almost like cultural tourism."
There was also an aspect of needing to retain a free flow in certain sequences, just sending the camera into a situation and letting it go wherever things were moving. That energy and that life was something I wanted to stimulate and encourage. Not that everybody was a non-actor, but many were. And when you’re working with non-actors, things can get very stale very quickly if you rehearse, and block, and shoot, and re-shoot, and re-shoot in a more conventional way. So a lot of direction became about letting the situation come first and getting the camera and the sound and the crew to catch up to it. I think I put the crew through a lot for that reason, because I was obsessed with this idea of just catching moments and letting things be a little bit rough around the edges! But catching that authenticity, and those magical sparks when they happened, was very important.
NFS: Did shooting this way, letting things happen, make it more difficult to edit?
Trengove: Yes. We shot a lot of material. It was a consequence of the process, so it did take a lot of time to process that material and make decisions. I think also, there was a lot of heartache, a lot of magic that we eventually had to cut out for various reasons. But it's the nature of the process!
NFS: What would be your best piece of advice for filmmakers?
Trengove: I find that when I challenge myself to step into a place that I'm not completely in control, or that I'm fearful of, that’s always where I make my most interesting work. As soon as things are too easy or familiar, I end up being boring. So in a way, what I've learned is to trust that squirmy, uncomfortable place. When you follow that uncomfortable place, you invariably reach something interesting.