« A story about characters that have to hide their deepest feelings at every cost »

Interview with John Trengove, South-African filmmaker, by Olivier Barlet

John Trengove has been selected by the Fabrique des Cinémas du monde, developed by the Institut français in Cannes Film Festival, a professional programme helping young directors from emerging countries working on their first or second feature film to increase their international exposure. They attend the Festival together with their producers and get personalized support adapted to their project and professional experience. After being selected in March, they receive guidance from a personal coach who helps identify their needs (in scripting, co-production, distribution, target markets, etc.) and makes appointments with professionals who might be interested in co-financing their project.
John Trengove speaks here about his project Inbexa (The Wound) which deals with sexual taboos imposed by traditional culture.

How is it going for you in Cannes, and in the Fabrique, this very particular program?
We’ve had a very intense week so far. Our projects have received an amazing mentorship from Walter Salles, who gave us a master class. We’ve had one-on-one sessions with him as well. That was a very meaningful and enriching experience for the project. Above and beyond that, a lot of personal attention is given to all of the projects in terms of facilitating introductions to co-producers, distributors, marketers, financiers and so on. There was a lot of nourishment and a lot of opportunities to move the project further. Thanks to this experience, we have received a huge boost.

Is it your first time at Cannes?
Yes, it is.

What is your general opinion towards the festival?
Well, some say that Cannes is the cradle of cinema, and it’s absolutely true. It is a beautiful place and there is an amazing spirit, but not only. The work is stupendous. It is enriching on every single level. For a filmmaker, a place like here, where film is revered in this way, is very important and very special.

How have you heard about the Fabrique? Did you apply in some way?
Yes, my producer Elias Ribeiro applied on our behalf. We met Dominique Welinski in Nantes, where we did a production workshop. We met her, she got to know our project, and she helped us to come here. She has been a big support.

You are not a new filmmaker. You did a lot of films, going into different directions: television, documentaries, commercials and short films. What would you say is the main trend in your work?
Up until now, it has been very diverse. I do consider myself a filmmaker, and making a feature film now is something that I’ve been working towards for a very long time. But I did everything else because I’m very stimulated by the diversity. Moving around like that keeps me fresh; I work on theatre as well. Keeping this diversity is a very important thing for me to do. I find that when I do the same thing all the time I get bored.

Could you pitch your project for us in a few words?
In South Africa we have a very important rite of passage. It is a ritual practiced by the Xhosa people, a very large population group. When Xhosa boys turn 16, or in their late teenage years, they undergo the rite of passage into manhood. Basically, it is a traditional circumcision ritual. This is a really secretive initiation: for three weeks, they go up into the mountains, they’re isolated from their community, no women are allowed, and they go through the healing process in the company of older men. It is really widely practised in South Africa. But the film focuses on the journey of a gay teenager from the city: a kid that could live in a first world city like Berlin or New York. He is in the middle of the process of coming out of the closet and he is rebelling against his father, who is quite oppressive and insists that he observes this very traditional initiation, with the hope that it might cure him from his homosexuality. So the young boy, named Kwanda, goes into this experience angry, frustrated, and wanting to challenge his very hyper masculine traditional culture. He meets a young rural man, who is his caregiver and is here to nurse him during his recovery period, and Kwanda begins to suspect that this man might be gay as well. And eventually he discovers that his caregiver is involved in a secret sexual relationship with another rural man. When it is discovered that this boy knows more than he should, the situation becomes really quickly dangerous. This story is in many ways a response to the homophobia that pervades African culture nowadays: draconian laws have been passed in Uganda and Nigeria. Even in South Africa, where the law protects homosexuals, in reality it is not that great, because homosexuality is considered to be unafrican, a threat to the traditional culture. These are ideas that I find very problematic, so the film pushes his back against these ideas. The film brings the bourgeois really liberal idea of gay sexuality in direct collision with the traditional conservatism, and that’s the story, the drama’s heart.

You have the feeling that it is important to tackle that subject in today’s South African society.
Yes, and even all over the world. It is in an issue that is polarizing the whole world. There are huge steps being made in gay rights, but in the same time there is a backlash. So this is something we need to talk about. But having said that, I wouldn’t consider this film an activist one. It is a human drama, it is a story about characters trying to figure it out and make sense of their world. It is a story about characters that have to hide their deepest feelings at every cost and the consequences of when those feelings are exposed. But obviously the context in which the story is being told is very loaded.

This ritual is when men define their sexuality, so it is the right moment to talk about that subject.
Exactly, the ritual is about masculinity, about becoming a man, and what it means to be a man. And it is situated around the penis. So it is in every way a very rich metaphoric arena for the story. And what the film does is presenting an alternative form of masculinity. Or rather it brings traditional and alternative forms of masculinity into conflict.

So you talk about the difficulties of being homosexual in Africa, how it is considered. Your main character is black and you are white. Is it not a risk to bring this story of initiation, which I guess does not belong to your own culture, considering the fact that you are a white South African?
Yes, you are right. Perhaps it is a provocative thing for me to do. But I am an African, I’m not European, and these ideas about homosexuality and africanness are something that affects me on a very personal ground. And I am not trying to represent a culture that is not my own, I’m telling a very personal and very subjective story. So, in every way, this is an emotional response to an issue that affects me.

So, why didn’t you choose a story with white people? I am just taunting you here.
I think that the main contention is around the idea that homosexuality is threatening traditional culture. There is this idea that becomes more and more popular that homosexuality was imported, or brought to Africa by the Western white culture, and represents white decadence. And the point that I would like to make in this film is that same sex desire is as ancient as African culture, that that idea as absolutely no grounding. In fact, you might know it, but the first anti homosexuality law was implemented by Europeans. Before that, there was no resistance towards it. There is a very dangerous attempt now to reinvent African history along these lines of absolute nonsense. So for me it is very important to go into a very typical and traditional context in order to get this message across. But also in response to what you are saying, I am working with two Xhosa writers; both of these men have been through the initiation. One of them has written a novel about it. So, it is definitely something that I am not treating lightly: the accuracy and the significance of the initiation is not lost on me or on the film. I am going to great length to portray it in a way that is accurate and meaningful.

Is the fact that the film is about homosexuality a problem in its financing?
We are making this film for what is considered a very modest budget by European standards. So the film can be made because it is not going to cost a huge amount of money. If we were trying to make a more ambitious film it might be more difficult. But we’re being really modest. We are budgeting the film so we can make it properly, so that there is no short-changing it. And because of this modesty we are able to make this film on our terms, not having to compromise or rewrite the story in any way to make it more palatable to a wider audience. But the other reason why we chose to set it in the initiation context is because it will open the film to a broader debate and engagement. If you made a simply gay film in Africa, then you would be talking to a very limited audience. But by doing it like this, there is a bigger engagement and a bigger conversation that will surround the film, and that is something that we definitely want to stimulate and encourage.

You already have a great part of the money that you need, 3/5 or something like that. It seems to be South African money, isn’t it?
There is a small part of the financing that comes from a private equity investor, a European one. But there also is the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) rebate, which covers 35% of the budget, so for that part, yes, it is South African money. We have also been given development funding from the Hubert Bals development fund, and we have got applications for various European funding, including the World Cinema funds, and we are doing a CNC application as well.

Do the different meetings you have had here have helped you with your financing?
Yes, we are getting a lot of good conversations and positive sights.

Because in South Africa today, if you want to make a niche film like yours, it is not possible to finance it with only South African audience.
Yes, it is very difficult. There is one funding body, a government funding body called the NFVF (National Film and Video Foundation) and they generally tend to prefer more commercially oriented projects. This is not a rule, but there seems to be a trend. I you apply to them for development funding, they also insist that you work with a script editor, so there is a degree of interference in the storytelling. And we found that it was probably not in the film’s best interest to go down that route. But it is true that it is very difficult to finance a film with only local funding, unless you find a private investor.

You have a producer: Elias Ribeiro from Urucu Media. Did you develop the story together, or did you came to him afterwards?
The story was in development for about a year before Elias cam onboard, and we have an associate producer, Batana Vundla. And Batana and I first build a story together. It was an idea that I had a long time ago. When I met him, who is himself Xhosa and gay, I thought maybe this was a good opportunity, the good moment to work on this story. But Elias has been very much responsible for bringing the project in this kind of international arena and he has had a lot of experience with festivals, and at building an international reach and network. He has been absolutely instrumental in making this project reality.

Would you say that the question of homosexuality is totally central to the film? Or is it just an example of what can be important for a human being?
I wouldn’t say that homosexuality is the centre of the narrative, but I would say that it is an outsider perspective. It provides an outside perspective on a hyper masculine, patriarchal system. And I think that in that sense it is universal, it is something that you could apply to a Muslim context or any example of rigid conservative and patriarchal doctrine anywhere. It is not so much the gay aspect as it is which is important, rather than the idea of sitting outside, looking in. And I think « alternative way of masculinity » is maybe a more interesting way of talking about it. Because in terms of representation of African masculinity, we have a very limited and narrow idea, and it tends to be this sort of aggressive, hyper masculine stereotype, and it is hugely problematic, as far as I’m concerned.

Concerning stereotypes: I am not gay, and I would have great difficulties to make a film about gay people, because I think I would not connect, because there are things that are not part of my experience. Is that a problem for you?
I don’t think so. What is at the centre of the film is characters that you feel are ostracized or marginalised, which is something most people can relate to in one way or another. And it is the idea that you have to hide who you really are in order to fit in, or in this case survive. And, to me, that is something people can relate to as well. I don’t see it as a gay film that speaks to a gay audience. I think it challenges something in our society, but it is not confined to a particular audience.

Where are you situated in terms of cast? Is it done, or is it still ongoing?
We will start our casting process probably when we are a little bit closer to starting the film, the reason being that we are working with teenagers, who have to be a very specific age. So it is difficult to cast them a year ahead, because you develop so quickly at that age and your cast will be too old by the time you shoot. So have to wait. But we will be casting from the actual communities where this is practiced, so that is going to take some time: travelling and visiting Xhosas. It is essentially non-actors that we have to find, so we will need a decent amount of time.

You won’t work with professionals?
We should work with a mix of non-actors and professionals, but again it is really important that it is in the actual communities that we do the casting.

Cannes, May 2014///Article N° : 12309

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