John Trengove – Interview

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I recently was afforded the opportunity to talk to South African director John Trengove about his film, ‘The Goat’which recently was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.

What appeals to you about producing a short film? Do you not find it harder to get your story across in a shorter space of time?

Shorts are great. You’re free to do what you want in a short and you don’t have to convince a small village that it’s a good idea or that it’s commercially viable. It’s a bit like being a painter or fine artist. You get to experiment and take risk without answering to anyone. The people who help you make them do it for the love. At least that’s how it was on The Goat.

The film centres on the Xhosa circumcision rituals, why do you think that these practices continue today in an ever modernising world. Are they still relevant?

Yes very relevant. I think there’s a lot to be said for a coming-of-age ritual that teaches a young man his place in the world. Of course there are problems and certain aspects of the initiation are in need of urgent revision, but it’s still a meaningful practice. We live in a world where generally speaking, men are under fathered.

Interestingly your film explores the belief that circumcision in the traditional manner “heals” the circumcised of their homosexual desires? In your research did you learn as to why they believe this?

Homosexuality is indulged during adolescence, but seen as something that you leave behind once you become a man. I’ve heard reports of gay boys who expect to be cured by the initiation. Of course there is a rude awakening when they discover that this is not the case. They are then faced with the option of either living in the closet, or moving away from their rural communities to live a gay lifestyle in the city. I have spoken to quite a few men who lead this kind of life. Some of them are quite comfortable with their split identity.

Now many people view homophobia as a Western construct but here we see homophobia taking place within an African cultural practice which is un-tainted by Western influence. Does this dispel the myth that Westerners brought homophobia to the continent?

The film is set in the present day, so the context cannot be seen as “untainted by western influence”. Even though the location is remote and the practice ancient, the homophobic currents in the film are very contemporary. To say that westerners brought homophobia to the continent might be an oversimplification. What we do know is that homophobic legislation is a western import. This is not a myth, it’s fact.

In casting the role of Xolani, what were you looking for?

Basically I wanted someone who conveyed the idea of internal struggle. The story is about a conflict that’s going on under the surface that doesn’t get expressed or acknowledged.

Why do you think this film is relevant to an international audience?

I honestly didn’t know that it would be. But after screening at the Berlinale and Toronto I guess it struck a nerve. I guess queer identity and gay rights is almost always seen as a middle class western issue. It’s surprising to people to see these politics play out in a tribal context.

At the end of this film, what do you hope the audience walks away with? What do you want this film to bring about?

It would be presumptuous to hope for too much. I guess it would be to question what they’ve just seen.

Do you have another film in the pipeline? If so could you tell us a bit about this?

Yeah we’re planning a feature film that deals with similar themes. A gay middle class teenager goes on the initiation, which turns dangerous when he discovers a closeted relationship between two rural men. Look out for it. It’s called The Wound