South African regulators have classified a touching gay love story as R-rated, “effectively labeling the film as pornography and pulling it out of cinemas,” the film’s producers said.
Released Feb. 2 in South Africa, Inxeba attracted so much protest in some areas that cinemas pulled the film, fearing for the safety of their staff. Yet the film garnered praise on social media and received positive reviews, with some critics urging audiences to see it because of the public outcry.
Protestors contend the film mocks the isiXhosa custom of ulwaluko, the initiation that boys must undergo before becoming men. The secretive practice sees hundreds of young men sent “to the mountain” or “to the bush,” a term meant to describe the isolation of the process during which they also are circumcised.
Shot in isiXhosa on location in the rural Eastern Cape, the film follows Kwanda, an openly gay young man who is sent to from the city to rural South Africa to attend traditional initiation school for Xhosa boys. In his ritual isolation from society, he is cared for by Xolani, a lonely factory worker who has not yet come out as gay. Kwanda’s questioning of traditional ideals of manhood upend the tradition he is participating in and threaten to expose Xolani’s secret.
The film’s scenes of the secretive initiation and its conversations around masculinity seem to have irked the more conservative sectors of South African society. Those opposed to the film object to what they say is cultural appropriation, while those supporting the film extol its expression of gay rights. The tenor of the debate illustrates the divide between South Africa’s liberal constitution and its sometimes conservative society.
The Film and Publications Board reclassified the film from 16LS to X18. Its decision for the stricter classification came after complaints from a branch of the Congress of Traditional Leaders and the Men and Boy Foundation (which seems to have no online presence or contact information).
The classification means the film cannot be shown in commercial cinemas and “can only be distributed at designated adult premises”—the kind of conditions that hardcore pornography is distributed under in South Africa. The exact reasons for the reclassification are not clear, but the board is legally mandated to clarify its deicision, the producers said in a statement sent to Quartz on Feb. 20. They plan to challenge the board’s decision.
“We are taking the matter very seriously and will not let it rest,” said Helen Kuun, head of Indigenous Film Distribution.
The film’s star, Nakhane Touré, received death threats long before the film’s release and has avoided interviews. A musician, novelist and actor who also happens to be a Xhosa man, Touré broke his silence on social media over the banning.
Several human rights and free speech organizations lent their voices to the outcry over the classification, while some South Africans began online petitions to challenge the classification.
The film’s co-writer, Thando Mgqolozana has called the ruling “anti-creation and draconian.” Mgqolozana’s debut novel, A Man Who is Not A Man, also delved into the contradictions of this secretive cultural practice. The danger of maiming and death of initiates during circumcision or while they are exposed to the elements in isolation is a constant news item in South Africa. Mgqolozana worked with director John Trengrove to create a short film based on his semi-autobiographical novel, before they worked together on Inxeba.
Those who oppose the film argue that it disrespects cultural norms by exposing some elements of the secretive ritual. Others argue that a white director and white producers had no right to tell this story, despite starring Xhosa men and being co-written by a Xhosa author.
“This movie Inxeba is an appropriation and complete distortion of black people’s cultural tradition of ulwaluko,” wrote the founders of the Facebook page ‘Inxeba The Wound Must Fall.’
“Some people who are not Xhosa men might say there is nothing wrong with the movie but as we Xhosa men we can see that they are mocking our tradition which was supposed to be kept as a secret,” said Shaun Mgecwa, who started the Facebook campaign to ban the film. Mgecwa told Quartz that the violence and strong language in the film casts a negative shadow on a process that is mean to teach men how to be the head of a household and how to behave respectfully in society.