Director: John Trengove
Screenwriters: Malusi Bengu, Thando Mgqolozana and John Trengove
Niza Jay Ncoyini
Country: South Africa/Germany/Netherlands/France
Runtime: 88 mins.
Australian Release Date: 8 February 2018
Previewed at: Dendy Cinemas, Newtown Sydney, on 30 January 2018.
John Trengove’s The Wound was selected as South Africa’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards, making the shortlist but not the final five; it was a worthy nomination though. It’s a confronting drama set in the hills of the Eastern Cape in South Africa where the elders of the Xhosa tribe take boys to be initiated. In the film, a group of Xhosa men set up camp to prepare for the ceremony, which involves the circumcision of the adolescents followed by three weeks of lessons teaching them how to be ‘men’. The boys come mainly from regional areas but one comes from the ‘big smoke’ and the differences between the country boys and the city kid are immense.
Once a year, a lonely forklift driver working in Cape Town, Xolani (Nakhane Touré), undertakes the role of ‘carer’ for one of the initiates. This year he’s been asked to look after Kwanda (Niza Jay), a teenager from Jo’burg who’s regarded as being “too soft” by his father. Xolani has another reason for being there though - to meet up with an old friend from his village, Vija (Bongile Mantsai), with whom he has an annual, furtive sexual liaison. Vija is a macho family man caught up in a society that does not recognise nor accept homosexuality; on the contrary, it is perceived as going against African culture. Indeed, it’s doubtful that he even thinks of himself as gay. When the two lovers are sprung in flagrante by Kwanda it creates confusion and panic for the pair and the story enters the realm of tragedy.
A complex plot on many levels, The Wound successfully reveals scenarios that are hidden not only from the outside world but also from the very people inhabiting this closed and closeted society. Furthermore, the subtext implies that urbanisation is killing traditional culture and this, perhaps, is the real wound. At one point Vija says to Kwanda words to the effect that the city-dweller won’t be happy until he’s destroyed them all. There are some pretty confronting scenes of circumcision, even though they’re implied and we’re spared vision of the cutting, but we do learn a lot about the treatment of ‘the wound’ in the days thereafter. Those who go through it have to be brave and can show neither pain nor fear; it’s a significant part of Xhosa tradition and is treated as a necessary procedure for entering manhood but can this tradition last in the modern world? Regrettably, cinematographer Paul Ozgur’s excessive use of ‘wobbly-cam’ will put some people off; yes, the film is shot in some pretty rugged country but a tracking shot or two would have smoothed off some of the hand-held camera’s rough edges.
Trengove's The Wound is a fascinating, documentary-like film, the like of which you won’t have seen before (for one thing it’s entirely in the Xhosa language) and it stays with you long after the screening ends. It will inevitably be compared to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and, perhaps, with the more recent God’s Own Country, however, it stands alone as a film that places its audience in the middle of a drama that is both enthralling and heart-breaking.