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South African Film ‘The Wound’ Tackles Taboos of Homosexuality Amid Controversial Circumcision Ritual

“My role as a director very often was about trying to create space for people to bring their own experience,” John Trengove tells TheWrap

If “Moonlight” had been about male circumcision in South Africa, it might look a lot like “The Wound.”

Like Barry Jenkins’ hit film, the official South African submission to the Foreign Language Oscar race “The Wound,” tackles the taboos of being a young gay man in a black culture — and it does so with the same intimate and poetic cinematic style as 2017’s Best Picture winner.

Director John Trengove talked to TheWrap as part of the Awards and Foreign Screening series at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles on Wednesday, explaining why making this film was an act of illuminating underrepresented and oppressed individuals.

“My role as a director very often was about trying to create space for people to bring their own experience and ideas on board,” Trengove told TheWrap’s Steve Pond.

“The Wound” depicts the ancient ritual of Ulwaluko, a male circumcision procedure practiced by the Xhosa people of South Africa. Boys typically in their late teens stand nude in blankets as an elder performs the procedure and calls on them to yell, “I am a man!” The “initiates” then spend weeks away in the mountains as caregivers nurse their bodies back to health.

It’s a symbolic act in Xhosa culture of an initiation into manhood, but “The Wound” grapples with how homosexuality in this context is viewed as not just taboo, but contrary to what it means to be a man in this society.

The film’s star, Niza Jay Ncoyini, plays a wealthy, gay teen from Johannesburg who wants to challenge the notions of the ritual and forms a relationship with his closeted homosexual caregiver. Ncoyini himself identifies as a gay man, but he’s had to come to terms with whether his culture sees him as fitting in with the ritual’s rigid notions of masculinity.

“Look at me, I have braids and am wearing heels, and I identify as a man. So for a long time I felt manhood and masculinity rejected me,” Ncoyini said. He added that a common myth for those partaking in the ritual is that it will “cure you” of homosexuality. “To find a film that was inserting a character who was disobeying these boundaries of masculinity and not vilifying them but saying he exists and he’s valid was what drew me to the film.”

What “The Wound” has gained in exposure since it was accepted into 2017’s Sundance, it has also gained in controversy and notoriety. Ncoyini recalls visiting his college campus to find fellow students protesting his film. And as one of the only members of the cast who has not undergone the ritual himself, Ncoyini has been faced with specific ridicule accusing him of truly wanting to be a woman or to be white instead of a gay, Xhosa man.

“Literally my safety has been compromised,” Ncoyini said. “There’s an entitlement that a lot of the people who are against the film feel. They feel they can threaten us, they feel they can violate us.”

“When the controversy started to arise when we got selected for Sundance, it was very conflicting emotionally for me, because I was very concerned about the safety, particularly of our cast, but we were very proud of the film we made and of the questions that it’s posing, and the fact that it urges uncomfortable but very necessary conversations,” said producer Cait Pansegrouw. “That allowed us to stand very firmly beside the film we’ve made.”

However, “The Wound” doesn’t expose secrets of the Ulwaluko ritual. Trengove confined the script to what was already known in the public domain, much of it originally exposed by Nelson Mandela in his autobiography. Rather, he explained his goal was to embrace the symbolic tradition of becoming a man but tell this same-sex narrative within this sacred context.

“There’s this idea that is still gaining popularity, and even now we’re hearing it in the new regime in Zimbabwe, that homosexuality is a Western practice brought into Africa and threatens traditional African culture. This is a very modern idea, but it is something widely utilized to justify all sorts of discrimination against gay people throughout the continent. So for that reason, it was meaningful for us to bring together a story about same-sex desire and a very traditional African custom,” Trengove said. “It’s doing what it was meant to do, which is to start a conversation and trigger all sorts of responses.”