Interview

 
 
Place: New York

Question: Masculinity

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

Why is it that men are so obsessed with their own masculinity? In our society today, gender and sexuality are big topics of discussion. Within the film world is no exception. Recently, new stories created out of this awareness, such as “Moonlight”, “Carol”, and even the blockbuster “Wonder Woman”, liberate us from conceptions. On the other hand, as white supremacists just marched in Charlottesville on August 12, there is also a movement in which a certain white male population is trying to protect or reestablish their old or new brand. If you look for the obsession with masculinity, you can find it in many cultures around the world, where it’s often called “tradition.” While the world is opening up to different ideas about gender and sexuality flowing along with time, only masculinity seems to remain stagnant.

 

South African filmmaker John Trengove’s new feature “The Wound,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival, embarks us on a journey exploring masculinity. Set among South Africa’s Xhosa community during a two-week initiation ritual in which boys become men, Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a factory-worker living in Queenstown, returns to the rural mountains as a caregiver for the initiate Kwanda (Niza Jay), a “soft” boy from Johannesburg whose attitude toward sexuality is rather fluid. At the ritual, Xolani, who closets his true nature, reunites with fellow caregiver Vija (Bonjile Mantsai), his childhood friend and precious memory. As they spend time together in the small community where only men are allowed, Xolani’s desire for Vija becomes irresistible.

 

The liberation of woman in a male-dominated society is at the forefront of the gender discussion nowadays, but beyond the term “toxic masculinity”, we hear almost no discussion of masculinity at all. People construct ideas of masculinity, then reinforce them by the societies and environment they create. As the film depicts, this small, all-male community is miniaturization of society, therefore obsession with their own gender is inherited this way. “The Wound” raises questions about gender and sexuality through masculinity. Just as oppression of women exists, oppression of men exists as well; men are also in a box. In this sense, are there people who are purely comfortable with their own gender and sexuality at all? Whether to protect or to break, do we keep questioning ourselves?

 

 

COOL sat with filmmaker John Trengove to discuss “The Wound” during his visit to NYC to present the film at this year’s New Directors/New Films.

 

 

“We’re not victims of female empowerment;

we’re victims of patriarchy”

 

 

Why did you want to make a film about this Xhosa tradition?

I was speaking with a colleague of mine who is Xhosa, who is also gay, and who became a co-producer on the film, about the possibility of making a queer film in Africa. It was really about his own ambivalent feelings about this initiation that’s considered the most important event in a man’s life. He chose not to go through it, and because of that he feels a lot of pressure throughout life. He’s not considered a man in the culture. Because of his own experiences, it was interesting to us to tell a story about same-sex desire in the context of this particular rite of passage ritual which deals so specifically with masculinity.

 

The film allows us to question what is manhood or masculinity. What about those qualities interested you?

Xolani (Nakhane Touré) © Kino Lorber

One is that, in a way, masculinity is toxic. There’s this abstract, impossible idea of what it means to be a man, that, I think, most men feel like they fail, or they’re inferior to that idea. It’s almost like a secret that we carry around with us: that we are not manly enough. That’s very problematic. Real poison and violence come out of those patriarchal structures and impossible standards that are set for men. The other thing was, what happens in a community of men when they organize themselves outside of society. There’s this very rich range of experience from these intense, violent power struggles on one side of the spectrum all the way through to the most tender and intimate interactions on the other side, and the way in which those two things can coexist in interactions. So, the range of experience that is possible in the company of men, even if it isn’t always acknowledged.

 

Masculinity can be very destructive. The film is about three characters who are all outsiders. They’re all sitting on the outskirts of masculinity and reacting to it. Even Vija, who’s this alpha male, is performing a kind of artificial masculinity because of his own insecurities. Then you’ve got Xolani the caregiver who submits to it, and Kwanda the initiate who rebels against it. They’re all in some traumatic reaction to this idea of a masculine ideal.

 

A female director I spoke with who made a documentary about feminism said the situation for women is still hard but women are going into liberation, but men are quite the opposite: very far from freedom.

I think that’s accurate. We’re very much constrained, not by anybody other than ourselves. That has to be pointed out. We’re not victims of female empowerment; we’re victims of patriarchy.

 

Why did you want to explore masculinity in nature? This film kind of reminded me of Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail”.

Vija (Bonjile Mantsai) and Vija (Bonjile Mantsai) © Kino Lorber

Funny, it’s a very good connection. I was exposed to “Beau Travail” in film school, and it is one of the films that inspired me to want to tell a story with only one gender. When you isolate a gender, whether man or woman, immediately the story becomes more allegorical and symbolic. I really enjoy stories that happen outside of society. When you don’t have cars, houses, buildings, and things that delineate and create social context, when you take characters outside of all those things that give them identity, and you only have them and their bodies and a few elements like clothing to signify who they are in their everyday life, it heightens the metaphoric and symbolic value of the story. It was about nature somehow mirroring the internal emotional experiences of the characters; finding ways that we could create a kind of claustrophobia in an outdoor space.

 

Do you find any quality in masculinity that you respect?

What is admirable is this mentorship that happens between men. For example, the relationship between the caregiver and the initiate, a sort of young man and a very young man, and this very brittle interaction that is about communicating and conveying experience is particular to the rites of passage. There is something very tender in that interaction that is potentially quite beautiful.

 

 

“In the world of “The Wound,” the stakes are very high”

 

 

When a man does something perceived as feminine, someone might negatively comment, “That’s feminine.” Do you have any opinion about that?

In some ways, softness is equated with characters who are not masculine, who are either gay or who are not strong enough to hold their own in the group. But Kwanda’s father, for example, who has gone to the city and lost contact with his traditional origin, is also perceived as soft. So soft is a word that holds a lot of ideas that are not traditional masculine ideas together. There’s a lot of shame attached to the idea of being soft, which makes the initiate Kwanda so strong because he embraces that, and in fact finds a lot of power in his softness.

 

Xolani and Vija complexly desire each other. Why do you want to explore same-sex desire through the film?

Xolani (Nakhane Touré) and Vija (Bonjile Mantsai) © Kino Lorber

As a gay man, I wanted to put these queer images on screen. My collaborators and I felt that this is something lacking in South African cinema, that this part of our population is not represented or is erased from the culture. What is meaningful for me in the context of the story is, same-sex desire sits in the range of experience, alongside power plays, mentorship, violence, all of these different kinds of ways in which men are able to interact. Same-sex desire is one of the markers on the scale. It gives me great pleasure to represent it as that. This is all part of the experience of being men. Even though a lot of men wouldn’t want to acknowledge that, it’s there and it’s always been there.

 

What is the situation for LGBTQ people in South Africa?

Uganda carries the death penalty, and things aren’t much better in Zimbabwe, so there are certainly places where it’s a lot worse. We’ve got a very liberal constitution in South Africa which allows gay marriage and gay adoption, but that benefits really only the privileged middle and upper-middle class who live in the cities. As soon as you move into the rural or more impoverished areas in the country, like where this film is set, it’s a lot more difficult. Gay and lesbian people, their lives and their bodies, are still endangered. Often the police or the authorities will turn a blind eye to homophobic violence. In the world of “The Wound,” the stakes are very high. For a man like Vija to be exposed as gay could potentially destroy his life, his identity, his work, and his family.

 

On the other hand, Kwanda, who lives in Johannesburg, doesn’t seem to care about masculinity as much as his father’s generation. What do you see in the attitude of the younger generation towards sexuality nowadays?

There’s a new generation of queer kid in Johannesburg and Capetown that for me is very inspiring. They are the first to live as out gay people. There’s no generation that came before to teach them, or to hand over the culture; they are creating the culture from scratch. They are pioneers. But the film makes the point quite starkly that we live in a society where you have these two completely different worlds right next to each other. The reality for someone who has a privileged existence in Johannesburg is completely different than for somebody who lives quite close by but in a different socio-economic and cultural space.

 

Does Xolani have a longing to be in this new situation that young people have?

Xolani (Nakhane Touré) © Kino Lorber

Well, I think so, but the point the film is making is, it’s not that simple. He can’t just go to Johannesburg and have what Kwanda has because his entire world and identity, plus the man he loves, is rooted in this one place. So, to go to Johannesburg means to cut himself off from all of those things. A middle class or international audience would agree with Kwanda: “Just get out of here, this place is oppressive to you, you deserve so much more,” these grand, sweeping, liberal impulses. I wanted to pause that reaction and say: actually, we don’t know Xolani. We don’t know what his life is really like, and we can’t make grandiose assumptions about what’s good for him.

 

I thought he knows what he wants to do, but he’s entangled by fear of cutting off those things you just mentioned and can’t really think beyond that.

In many ways, the story is about his initiation. Xolani is the main initiate. He is the one who has to make a decision and assert himself, which he eventually does in a very big way. He makes a choice. What that means for him, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, is not for me to say.

 

 

“To bring this queer film from South Africa,

for us, is a meaningful thing to do”

 

 

The other young initiates seem to care more about material wealth, and the boundary between rich and poor. Why did you want to capture that aspect?

This ritual is ancient, but I didn’t want to romanticize it. As much as possible, I tried to find ways to keep reminding us this story is happening today, in an industrialized near-capitalist society, and that these people who are practicing the ritual are among the more disenfranchised within the society. It’s about the friction between an ancient practice and a modern industrial world, and these things rubbing up against each other in an uncomfortable way.

 

The three main actors are great. Why did they choose to be in this film?

Vija (Bonjile Mantsai) and Xolani (Nakhane Touré) © Kino Lorber

All three are Xhosa actors and very special people. Nakhane, the lead actor, is a singer and an out gay celebrity in South Africa. It was important for him as a Xhosa man to say, “I choose to do this. As a gay man, as a Xhosa man, this is something I want to speak about.” For Niza as well, that defiance, saying, “This is who I am. I’m not like my family or my community necessarily wants me to be, but I am proud and I assert myself as this.” For Bongile, who’s straight and plays Vija, he felt he had a personal conviction. He said to me that if his son ever comes to him and says “I’m gay,” then he hopes that he will be able to say to him, “I understand something of who you are and what’s going on because of having done this project.” That’s an amazing dad, right?

 

Last year was the Orlando hate massacre, and the new US presidency is very excluding. What do you think about this situation, and about the future path the world could follow?

Well, it’s depressing, but it’s more than just depressing; it’s almost psychotic. It feels like there’s a madness. Everything is moving so fast and it’s so terrifying. This film was made in reaction to a very local situation, but by the time we released it at Sundance, in the week that Trump got elected, it was a very interesting moment in American politics. With race and LGBT issues being so heated here, to bring this queer film from South Africa, for us, is a meaningful thing to do.

 

Lack of diversity in American cinema is a big issue these days. As a white man living in South Africa, what did you want to see through this project?

The concession about diversity is as strong in South Africa as it is here, and I’ve come under a lot of criticism as a white man for having made this film. It’s something that I have to own up to. There is so much more to be said about Xhosa culture, about disenfranchised black queer individuals, that I’m not equipped to speak about. This project exists because of the collaborations I had with Xhosa men. All I can say is, I hope it is the beginning of more things, more stories, and more films to come.

 

 

Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

© Kino Lorber

 

“The Wound” opens in limited release on August 16

 

 

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