John Trengove’s debut feature, The Wound, has had quite the impressive journey from concept to screen. A product of the 2014 Torino Film Lab, The Wound has since found immense success on the festival circuit at places such as Sundance, Berlin, and London. Given that it’s the official submission of South Africa to the 90th Academy Awards, and The Wound has easily cemented itself as one of the great international successes of 2017.
Inspired by Trengove’s 2014 short, The Goat, The Wound follows a group of young Xhosa men as they undergo a circumcision ritual, ulwaluko, an archaic initiation into manhood. While over nine-hundred young men have died as a result of the process since 1995, the practice remains a heavily secretive and mystical ritual embedded in Xhosa culture. Along with the medical risks, ulwaluko has also been considered a suppression of homosexuality within African culture, some critics even labeling it as heterosexual conversion technique.
Given the aforementioned, it’s no real surprise that The Wound, which tracks the homosexual relationship between two men during the ulwaluko is a tense and heart wrenching character study. Following one of the caregivers, Xolani (Nakhane Touré [an ikhankatha]), to the initiates, Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini [part of the abakhwetha]), as he struggles with the ritual process and his own feelings for lifelong friend and fellow caregiver, Vija (Bongile Mantsai). Similar to Moonlight in its portrayal of homosexuality and homophobia in a masculine dominated culture, The Wound is a film that, quite literally at times, wrestles with its themes.
The cast is impressive, especially when considering that it’s a stable of unknowns and non-actors, akin to the models of Robert Bresson. Force is a massive component to performance in the film, with acts of dominance and power being a constant visual motif. Headlocks replace hugs and the brutish, hunched stance of the men in relation to their environment serves as an crippling force, as if their suffering – financial, physical, and/or romantic – has reached the point of debilitation.
At its core, The Wound is a film about oppositional forces: man versus nature, childhood versus manhood, straight versus gay, and tradition versus modernity. Outside of a brief factory sequence, the film takes place entirely in nature, thus giving the environment as much of a role to play as the men. In fact, it can be said that the relationship between man and nature is perhaps reflexive of their own experiences. Meaning that, the hacking of branches with machetes is no less violent than the sex between X and Vija, and a sequence involving a thunderous waterfall serves as the great visual metaphor of the entombed individual. The water pouring in such a way that is near violent, yet even with all the force, is only funneled to an area that traps it.
Gorgeously shot by Paul Ozgur (Sam de Jong’s Prince ), The Wound is a film that is photographically in tune with its elements. A lover’s altercation occurring at their most free state, in an open field, against the backdrop of draining sky. As if the nature is a vicarious force to the men in the sense that it too suffers along with them. The sound design operates in this same sense, with the chopping of wood or roaming through forests crackling and popping in an artificial form that’s reminiscent of the restructuring of nature in Philippe Grandrieux’s Un lac. Which is to say, nature, much like homosexuality, is one of the few elements in the film that is not a construct, but suffers from manipulative and disguising practices due to tradition and form.
Along with Léa Mysius’ Ava and Rojda Sekersöz’s Beyond Dreams, The Wound is one of the year’s great debut features. Hopefully, signaling the arrival of a new wave in South African filmmaking – along with other rising auteurs such as Jenna Cato-Bass and Michael Matthews – that challenges tradition, both cultural and cinematic.