Niza Jay Ncoyini is initiate Kwanda (right), comforted here by Xolani, his caregiver, played by Nakhane Toure. Picture: Supplied
‘This is South Africa, not Uganda or Zimbabwe! Like Africa does not know gay love? How can love destroy a nation?” These are just some of the rants of Xhosa initiate Kwanda, played by Niza Jay Ncoyini in the film Inxeba (The Wound in English).

The rant is directed at his caregiver, Xolani, played by Nakhane Toure, after he discovers that, like himself, Xolani is gay. However, while Kwanda is openly gay back in urbanised Johannesburg, he has not yet had the courage to come out in the rural villages of the Eastern Cape and to his family.

Xolani is a factory worker in Queenstown who has also kept his sexual preference a secret. His true love is a childhood sweetheart who went on to marry a woman and start a family. He is also a caregiver on the mountain. All of this complicated drama plays out in the few weeks of an initiation.

There is a very strict and sacred rule in Xhosa culture that what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain. 

Then add in a gay theme, which is often frowned upon by conservative people, not only in Africa but in the rest of the world, and there is potential for Inxeba to become the Once Were Warriors of Xhosa initiation.

Nakhane Toure. Picture: Supplied

Unlike the myth perpetuated by Once Were Warriors, not all Maoris are wife-beating, violent, manic alcoholics.

Fortunately, the Inxeba filmmakers were very aware of the delicate and controversial issues they were dealing with.

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Inxeba is directed by John Trengrove and written by Thando Mgqolozana, Malusi Bengu and Trengrove. Trengrove first approached Mgqolozana after reading his novel, A Man Who Is Not A Man, which deals with initiation. Mgqolozana responded to the idea of depicting “alternative African masculinities”.

They spent a lot of time in the Eastern Cape researching and listening to testimonials and conversations with Xhosa men - gay, straight, some urbanised and affluent, others from remote rural areas.

“I got to see first hand the transformative effect it had on some men who went through it,” says Trengrove. “ In a world that is underfathered, there is something profound about a ritual that shows a young boy his place in the world of men.”

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The film starts off more like an intimate documentary with the circumcision ritual taking place within the first 20 minutes. As Inxeba progresses, situations spiral out of control. There are moments of intense beauty and profound love. The theme of urban culture versus rural culture is also strong throughout.

Inxeba cast. Picture: Supplied

It is a hidden, secretive world that initially made me feel voyeuristic and then the story line became so gripping, I was immersed.

Toure is brilliant as the lead actor. Off screen he has vulnerable eyes, which is one of his many unique characteristics that qualify him as a superstar. With this, his debut screen appearance, Toure uses his eyes to express his love, his anger, his hurt, his sensitivity and in one terrifying scene, his ability for cold cruelty. It is an excellent performance by one of South Africa’s most talented musicians. Toure recently published his first novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues and is currently working on his second. He is about to release a second album through an international deal in France.

There are also stellar performances by stage actor Bongile Mantsai, who plays Vija, Toure’s love interest and initiate Niza Jay Ncoyini ,who plays Toure’s initiate Kwanda.

Nakhane Toure. Picture: Supplied

“The larger community of Xhosa men and elders in the film are all non-actors,” explains Trengrove. “On set, we asked them to perform the different aspects of the ritual as they would do it and to react to the rehearsed scenarios in any way they felt was right. If they didn’t approve of a character’s behaviour, they would say so during takes.”

Inxeba is not one of those Hollywood blockbusters that have arrogant film critics whimsically throwing around popcorn ratings out of 10. It already has social media in a tizz, without it even being screened in this country. But, then again, social media is about as shallow as a puddle of spit.

A judgement call can only and should only be made once you have seen the film. This is a film that is not obvious, that does not follow the Hollywood formula and it certainly cannot be told via a film critic. The sensitive themes dealt with in Inxeba means that one must experience the film first.

Inxeba had its world premier at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.