The creators of Inxeba/The Wound always knew the film would be controversial. A hidden gay romance set in the secretive world of a traditional initiation school for Xhosa boys, the film sparked outrage long before it was released.
The film’s weekend release on Feb. 2 in cinemas around the country led to protests and some cinemas pulling the film after staff members were threatened. The producers persevered, with no major incidents taking place, except for the public debate on masculinity, cultural appropriation and the lengths communities have to go to protect their traditions.
The knee-jerk response to the film, the first South African film available on Netflix, is mostly linked to media coverage describing it as a gay love story among initiates, but the film is much more than that. The film’s producers argue that anyone who actually sees it and engages with its subject matter would immediately understand this. It follows the story of Xolani, played by musician and author Nakhane Touré, a lonely factory worker who also acts as a caregiver to initiates while they are isolated from society in the bush.
An openly gay city boy is Xolani’s charge this season, threatening to reveal Xolani’s own unspoken truth. Kwanda’s expensive sneakers and his insistence on wearing a nose ring along with his traditional initiates garb challenges notions of traditional masculinity in this rural setting, while his constant clashes with the other initiates openly question what it means to be a Xhosa man. Among the complex set of characters is Vija, a man trapped by his own traditions and social expectations of who must be as a man.
Critics argue that the film threatens to reveal the secrets of ulwaluko, Xhosa initiation rituals that are purposely shrouded in mystery. Each year, thousands of South African boys undergo circumcision as a rite of passage across several different cultures.
The age-old practice has come under modern scrutiny for initiate deaths at the hands of unscrupulous practitioners. While there have been attempts to regulate the practices, and modernize the tools and aftercare used, the vast majority of South Africans know few details of what goes on in the mountain. Most proponents of initiation believe that’s exactly how it should stay.
While the film is set among the temporary huts of the initiates (which will be burned down once they are men), it depicts little that is not already known by the public. The circumcision that marks the initiation process is dealt with sensitively, but it is not the center of the film, neither is it fetishized as those outside of the culture have done before.
Instead, its questions about manhood and being gay in South Africa are what drive the story in a country where same-sex marriage may be legal, but homophobic murders are rarely adequately prosecuted. This is also not the first time LGBTQI rights have been discussed within this rite of passage. It isn’t even the first time the process has been publicly discussed, as former president Nelson Mandela described his own experience in his bestselling memoir Long Walk to Freedom.
Critics of the protests have further questioned the selective outrage of the demonstrators. Protestors, including the Xhosa king, say it reveals the jealously guarded secrets of a tradition that has managed to endure oppression and modernization. If a story like this is to be told at all, whose right is it to tell that story, argue critics who see the film as the appropriation of Xhosa culture.
“It is not okay to subjectively delve into traditions and practices you are not a part of under the guise of sparking debate and engagement,” write Lwando Xaso and Zukiswa Pikoli, directly addressing John Trengrove, the film’s director. “It is not your place because you are not speaking as a member of that society.” Trengove is a white South African.
In what is one of the more sound criticisms of the film, the two Xhosa women writers argue that it was not the place of a white man to tell this story. That Trengrove wrote the screenplay with author Thando Mgqolozana, a black man who also happens to be the founder of an all-black literary festival, is seen as a “cheapening of our people,” they argue.
Inxeba/The Wound has sparked a lot of conversations that are prompting more publicity than the low budget film could have hoped for, but it has been a painful experience for the producers and stars, who have endured death threats. In spite of this, it has managed to do what good art should: evoke uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Preventing screenings of Inxeba/The Wound won’t silence those questions.