South Africa's Oscar Entry 'The Wound' Cuts Deep Into Issues of Masculinity and Sexuality

The Wound Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Kino Lorber

John Trengove's film explores the initiation ritual of the rural Xhosa community.

For his directorial debut, John Trengove ventured into unknown territory: setting his tale of same-sex desire within the secretive world of ulwaluko, the traditional circumcision rite by which a Xhosa boy becomes a man.

The Wound follows Xolani (first-time actor Nakhane Toure), a lonely factory worker who, every year, joins other men from his village in the mountains, where they initiate a new group of teenage boys in the ways of Xhosa manhood. But when Kwanda (Niza Jay), a defiant initiate from the city, discovers Xolani's closeted love affair with another man, his entire existence begins to unravel.

Trengove collaborated with several Xhosa, including co-producer Batana Vundla and, to co-write the script, novelist Thando Mgqolozana, author of A Man Who Is Not a Man, which follows the trauma of a young Xhosa whose circumcision has gone wrong. But the director was still hesitant about his problematic presence as a white gay filmmaker telling this black African story.

"In another place or time, I wouldn't have made this film," says Trengove. "It was a big ethical issue for me to tell this story. But it was a story that wasn't being told, about a community that had been grossly overlooked and grossly stereotyped."

Trengove and his team spent five years interviewing hundreds of Xhosa men who had gone through ulwaluko, focusing particularly on gay men and their experiences. "The ritual is a crossroads for these men, when they have to choose to either conform or live in the closet or move away from their community," says Trengove.

The cast of The Wound is made up entirely of Xhosa men who have gone through ulwaluko and who brought their personal experiences to the set. "For the ritual scenes, I didn't direct them in a conventional sense. It was more like a documentary," says Trengove. "The same goes for the homophobic aspects of the story: There was real homophobic feeling on set, and a lot of comments were improvised."

Even before The Wound was released, the Xhosa royal family called for it to be banned, claiming it disrespects the ulwaluko ritual. Trengove and the cast received death threats. "The film is obviously controversial and can be divisive, but it's been embraced, especially by the black queer community in South Africa," he says. "The film has moved beyond me and beyond us. It belongs to the community now."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.