The Wound (Inxeba), South Africa’s entry for next year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar is a brilliant subversion of the typical tropes of LGBT themed coming of age movies. Here, we delve in to a male community that still enforce their younger members to take a bloody initiation ritual in order to “become a man” – and yet, the real coming of age narrative isn’t about these new “initiates”, but about one of the elder “caregivers”, whose struggle to hide his sexuality is now becoming apparent with one of the younger members of the group.
Two contrasting coming of age narratives are told here, equally complimenting the other, all while ingeniously subverting genre expectations. Firstly, what appears to be the initial narrative centre of attention. Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) is one of the boys going through with the initiation, immediately standing out due to his affluent background. Sent up from Johannesburg, where his father (a tribesman made good) is a successful businessman, he is forced to go through with the harrowing process of ukwaluka, a form of ritual circumcision enforced on him by a father who believes his westernised ways are too soft. His reluctance to tribal customs never ceases, making him an immediate target within the group, right down to the small details; he’s chastised for owning a fancy iPhone, instead of a more down to earth Blackberry, for example.
However, the real coming of age tale is from the perspective of the elder tribe member tasked with looking after him through the process. Xolani (Nakhane Toure) is closeted, working a dead end factory job, with his only sense of release being the one night stands he has with married childhood friend and fellow “caregiver” (played by Bongile Mantsai). After being assigned to look after Kwanda, he immediately recognises that he too is hiding his sexuality – but by letting slip his own sexuality in an aggressively masculine culture, where being gay is still one of the biggest taboos imaginable, Xolani realises he made the error of confiding in somebody who will do whatever it takes to return back to normal civilisation.
Despite dealing with ritual circumcision in the Xhosa community, a long standing hot button topic in South African culture (Nelson Mandela himself went through the same initiation process outlined here), director John Trengrove’s film is refreshingly not an “issue movie”. Within the first ten minutes, the most graphic elements of the narrative are dealt with bluntly, albeit off camera, making way for a forced emotional maturity every bit as painful as the forced physical one. The film’s refusal to politicise what is clearly a harmful ritual may prove infuriating for some viewers – but making this a mere backdrop to a drastic tale of confused masculinity helps rejuvenate a genre that’s familiar to the point of feeling frequently stale. It also helps highlight that the practice of “becoming a man” in any culture is usually a euphemism for avoiding a sincere displays of emotion; Kwanda may come from a thriving city, but he’s still hiding the same emotions at home as he is when forced in to the nightmarish tribal landscape. Being forced to instantly mature through a strange ritualistic process isn’t going to change this fact.
The film is taboo breaking in other ways, not just in dealing with homosexuality in black tribal communities (a boundary pushing cinematic achievement for South Africa), but in actually showing deeper emotional connections too. An early sex scene is complimented by allowing the audience to witness the aftermath of a later one – two men, cuddled up together, under a serene naturalistic backdrop. This moment of emotional peace is a rarity for a movie that is so hard edged in other respects, building up to a conclusion which subverts the standard narrative closure from a film within this genre in an unrelentingly bloody manner.
The Wound (Inxeba) is a refreshing coming of age story from a director who manages to see beyond the controversial subject matter to find the compelling human stories within. Fresh from a plethora of award wins at festivals across the globe (including the “best first feature” at LFF, and a spot at the Cambridge Film Festival), the film proves to be worthy of the hype – a slow burning character drama, that leads to an unforgettable climax.