For whatever reason, foreign films set in Third World countries like South Africa still have trouble finding audiences, even though there are some amazing stories to tell and filmmakers from the region willing to explore subjects that might seem like taboo in their own countries, but actually could relate well to audiences elsewhere.
John Trengove’s The Wound is just such a case. When it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it barely got much attention, although the story it’s telling is so similar to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a movie that was getting so much praise and accolades at the time. It’s shocking few other film writers picked up on the comparison, although Kino Lorber wisely jumped on board to release it, knowing full well the challenges of finding an audience for such a film.
The story takes place within the tribal initiation rights of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa, and it deals specifically with three characters and how the annual traditions are disturbed by an outsider.
The movie starts with the ritual circumcision of a group of young men, the first part of the Xhosa’s coming-of-age rites. Before you check out and say, “Okay, this isn’t for me,” you should know that none of this is actually shown, and for all the focus on male genitalia throughout The Wound, you never actually see a single penis. But you need to know the context of the movie’s title.
After having the tribal elder taking a knife to their junk, the dozen or so young men are then placed in separate tents to heal while they’re being looked after by their “caregiver.” In this case, that caregiver is Bongile Mantsai’s Vija, who has been performing this duty for many years. As the boys heal, they’re put through a rigorous boot camp to learn tribal traditions of hunting and getting wood to build fires on which they would cook their kills.
Nakhane Touré’s Xolani is one of the men put in charge of watching and training a group of these young men. What Xolani has been hiding all these years is that he and the married Vija have been in a relationship, which they secretly consummate during the weeks they’re up in the mountains away from the rest of their tribe.
So yeah, Moonlight definitely comes to mind with this sort of story, but also Ang Lee’s excellent Brokeback Mountain. Where The Wound really ups the ante on those films is that these two men are forced to hide their love for each other as part of a conservative tribe where one’s masculinity is everything and being gay would get them permanently exiled. Even in modern times when homosexuality is accepted the world over, they would forever be treated as outcasts if anyone found out about them, although many of the other men in their tribe already suspect the truth.
Into this situation comes Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), a teenager from the city of Johannesburg who has been sent to go through this tribal ritual by his uncle who wants to “toughen it up.” Turns out that Kwanda is also experimenting sexually, and he figures out Xolani and Vija’s relationship quicker than others. Kwanda also gets mercilessly bullied by the other young men going through the same ritual, because he’s a rich kid from the city who shows up to the ritual wearing fancy sneakers rather than going barefoot like the rest of them.
There’s really a lot of layers to this story, the relationship between the three characters and the way John Trengove explores them, which needs to be experienced for yourself, but this is by no means your “typical” story of closeted gay love.
Trengove is quite a fantastic filmmaker, using the outdoor setting to its fullest to make you feel as if you’re a fly on the wall watching something few Westerners get to see.
His cast — presumably made up of real men who come from the actual tribal setting in Africa, rather than trained actors — is fantastic, to the point where you wonder where and how Trengove found men that could parlay the emotions that are so pivotal towards telling this story. (There are absolutely no women in this movie, if that’s important to you, but putting token women characters into the story would immediately take away from the authenticity.)
Honestly, I wouldn’t even be remotely surprised if South Africa puts The Wound forward as its seletion for the Oscar foreign language category, and frankly, it has a good chance of getting into the Oscar race, because the story Trengove is telling feels so universal and the quality of the storytelling is hard to deny.
As I said, wherever Kino Lorber opens the film, it’s not going to play for long, just because they haven’t been able to get as much press for the film that it clearly deserves. Sadly, this is par for the course with a foreign language film by a first-time director with no known names and faces, but Trengove certainly is a filmmaker to watch.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor
Under the Radar is a weekly column focusing on one or two movies that you may have missed or wouldn’t have heard much about since they have limited marketing budgets. These aren’t reviews per se and they won’t always be about movies I necessarily like — just movies you should know about and any social implications they might have that would make them worthwhile viewing.