Notes on Identity

Notes on Identity

“I am 40 now; I was 38 when I directed the movie, and held out for some time before making my first feature” explains The Wound director John Trengove. “I think for all of those reasons that I wanted to be in the right space, not just technically but emotionally in having the right amount of control to tell the film that represented me or my values as a filmmaker.”

Set amidst South Africa’s Xhosa culture, the film portrays an ancient coming-of-age ritual, in which the tribe’s young men are brought to the mountains of the Eastern Cape to participate in a rite of passage into manhood. Xolani, a quiet and sensitive factory worker, played by openly gay musician Nakhane, is assigned to guide Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), a city boy from Johannesburg. Defiantly negotiating his queer identity within this masculine environment, Kwanda’s recognition of the true nature of Xolani’s relationship with fellow guide Vija (Bongile Mantsai) propels the three men into a precarious dance of desire that threatens their exposure, elevating the tension to a breaking point.

ASFF: Having started out in theatre before transitioning to film, how do you compare and contrast these two storytelling mediums?
I think of myself as having a foot in both, and I still occasionally direct and devise theatre. Having friends who work in theatre, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get out of filmmaking for a little while and to get my head into a different kind of experience. For me, the magic is that you don’t need people’s permission to make a piece of theatre. You can go into a room with two or three friends, or colleagues, and just let yourself be free, whereas with film, there is so much work that is put into creating a small community around a project before it can see the light of day. So many people have to buy into the idea with film and so there is something in the immediacy of the freedom of theatre that is absolutely amazing.

I think that with film, what was surprising and what I love so much is that you only need to capture a moment once. You can work with a wide variety of actors under very different circumstances, and whether you are working with somebody with a tremendous amount of craft, or you are working with a non-professional, if you can trick or steal or cheat a moment, and for the camera to be rolling and for the lens to be in focus, then all you need is that one moment, and you can then move on.

So there is another kind of freedom in film that you don’t have in the theatre, for which you really have to have a very robust thing that can sustain itself from beginning to end every single night. I find a lot of gratification in both. Obviously for me, it always started with actors and performance, and so when I entered film, the actors and the characters were always my starting point, with this idea of the point of view of the camera something that came later. Now I find myself obsessed with the camera and what it and mise en scenè can do, but that was certainly something that came later in my trajectory.

 ASFF: We feel and perceive our world visually, and some of the imagery in the film echoes the images we associate with tribal cultures or traditions. This pictorial reference point acts as a means to communicate either a sense or understanding of identity, but through this dialogue are there worrying limitations of a stereotypical nature?
Well yes, this was obviously a very big concern and interestingly enough there is this whole National Geographic scandal that’s just happened. I believe they have admitted to their kind of racist past in terms of how traditional cultures were often photographed, and this is something that we in South Africa are particularly sensitive about.

When we started talking about The Wound and how to create these images, I very much wanted to reject this ethnographic body and landscape idea of depicting African culture because that’s a way of looking at traditional culture from an almost cultural tourism or outsider’s perspective. It sees it as something exotic and mysterious, whereas what the characters inside the story, their priorities and concerns, and what they look at is quite different. So that was certainly something that we spent a lot of time talking about and taking into consideration.

Landscape in particular is something that for an outside audience, and particularly for a non-South African or non-African audience has a certain allure and association, mystery and beauty. Even though we were shooting in some very visually arresting locations, I made a point of never standing back and photographing beautiful landscape. For us it was always about staying close to the characters themselves, close to their bodies, and for the landscape to become incidental to that, so when landscape is revealed, it’s because the character is moving through the space, as opposed to the camera standing back and taking it all in. The waterfall scene is a good example of that – you don’t know where you are until Xolani walks up to the waterfall, and then suddenly you can take in the space.

This is something that happens in quite a few locations and to me what is also interesting is there is a slight disorientation in that we were never concerned with explaining geography in any kind of rational way. Rather we thought of landscape as an emotional and irrational space, and then the proximity to the actors creates a claustrophobia that was also important. The fact that we were shooting in wide open spaces and yet I wanted the audience to feel something of what Xolani feels, which is this internal pressure building, this idea was also served by the tight framing of the film.

 ASFF: This idea of evoking feeling in your audience speaks to how the camera can look beneath the skin of human superficiality, that is juxtaposed with our propensity for insight and philosophical thought.
Again, this is something that is particular to film in my mind; there is something that happens that I call gaps. It is presenting an idea or a set of circumstances and then deliberately withholding certain in-between moments, of creating gaps in the narrative, or bringing contradictory ideas into the same space or proximity without necessarily trying to forge one distinct line between the two. What happens in that moment is an audience is invited to actively participate in the film, and so they will begin to fill in and imagine for themselves what a character is thinking, or what is motivating that moment.

Without spoiling the end of the film, that’s something that comes so completely out of the blue that it immediately forces the audience to go back and revisit what they have been watching for the last ninety minutes. It asks you to fill in some of the psychological blanks as it were of the characters, and in those gaps, you begin to experience what you are referring to as a kind of psychological or philosophical death. To my mind I don’t think of myself as somebody who analyses my own films, but rather I bring certain ideas and elements together in a way that allows an audience to do so. It’s about bringing enough information onto the screen, but not too much that invites an active participation from an audience.

ASFF: Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
JT: There are two important things you just asked me. First is absolutely, for me this was probably the hardest, but also the most important and rewarding thing I have ever done. Again, I don’t see myself as somebody who has reached a place of certainty or having a strong opinion, but rather I had the opportunity to go on a journey and learn a couple of things along the way. It’s always dangerous to think we have the capacity to transform people, and I think it was Brecht who said that the revolution can’t happen in the theatre, it must happen outside of the theatre.

What the theatre or the story or in this case the film can do is plant certain questions or ideas in the audience that stay with them when they leave. This is the important thing and a big lesson for me was that I am not here to provide answers. I am not here to wave a flag or convince anybody of anything, but rather to present a situation in its contradictions and its complexities and leave it with the audience to do with those what they want.

The Wound opens in select cinemas and is available on demand from Friday 27 April courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures. For more click here.

Paul Risker

1. Still from The Wound. Courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures.