The Wound (Inxeba) – Film Review by Patrick Viale
Director: John Trengove
Writers: Malusi Bengu, Thando Mgqolozana
Stars: Nakhane Touré, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay
Exploring the traditional South African Xhosa initiation rituals into manhood, John Trengove’s first feature film tells the story of Xolani, a factory worker who every year leaves the town where he lives and heads to the mountains of Eastern Cape to act as “caregiver” to the teenage boys undergoing the ceremony. In a nod to Brokeback Mountain, we discover that his motives are not totally unselfish as this is his only opportunity to re-establish his clandestine sexual and romantic relationship with another mentor, Vija, a childhood friend, now married, with a wife and children back home.
Told in a quasi documentary style, Trengove’s film deals with the issues of masculinity, sexuality and community in a culture where standards are rigid and where any sign of homosexuality is condemned. For Xolani, now in his mid-20s, living a lonely closeted life far from his village, this annual tryst plays a huge role, and when complications arise, in the form of a third person, tensions escalate and it is obvious that something is going to change.
Xolani’s charge this year is Kwanda, a young man from a privileged background in Johannesburg, whose father instructs Xolani not to spare his son from any of the hardships involved in the ritual (which incudes, among other things, male circumcision). From what he tells Xolani, it is clear that he suspects his son of being gay and hopes that this initiation ceremony will somehow change him. While following his instructions, Xolani also tries to protect the young man from the insults and aggression of the other initiates, who react to his homosexuality which he does nothing to hide. Vija’s ambiguous attitude towards the young initiate, at times hostile but also intrigued, causes tensions among the group and as suspicion and jealousy escalate, a dramatic climax is inevitable.
The slow, observational camera work, with long sequences concentrating purely on the visual, without any dialogue, has the dual effect of forcing the Western viewer to look for clues to try to interpret a culture so alien to ours and of ratcheting up a sense of imminent danger. The violent outbursts and unpredictability of Vija’s behaviour add to this feeling of tension but events do not necessarily develop in the way we expect.
Were it simply as a glimpse into the way of life of another culture, Trengove’s film would be interesting but there is a lot more to it than that. It digs below the façade of facile interpretations of masculinity and poses more questions than it answers. The unflinching picture it shows is not always easy to watch but it is a remarkable and provocative film which lives long in the memory.
In Xhosa, with some dialogue in Afrikaans and English, with English subtitles.