The Wound divides opinion
Inxeba, which translates as The Wound, focuses on the Xhosa tribe’s coming-of-age ceremony for young men, during which teens go into the bush in groups to undergo ulwaluko, or circumcision without anaesthetic.
Ultimately, The Wound is about identity struggle and masculinity in a traditional society. The film, while an accurate depiction of Xhosa rites, tells the fictional tale of Xolani, a factory worker who goes to mentor the younger initiates, one of whom comes to the realisation that he is gay.
The film has received high praise among cinephiles, premiered at Berlin and Sundance, and won awards at the Palm Springs and Valencia festivals. But it has divided opinion in South Africa, where, while homosexuality is legal, is still not widely accepted.
The film’s gay lead Nakhane, a well-known local musician, won best actor at the Palm Springs film festival. But at home he has received death threats, some groups have called for a ban, and even the Xhosa king has slammed the film as “insulting”.
For the Xhosa, the two-week initiation period is steeped in mystique, with the boys painted white and draped in blankets as they fast and live in straw huts in the mountains of the Eastern Cape. It is also believed to be a boy’s transition to manhood.
The film’s co-writer, Malusi Bengu, who is Xhosa, said the local reaction to the movie did not surprise him because it was taboo on so many levels.
“Firstly, I’ve been to initiation I understand the sacredness and secretness. Then you want to bring in a gay element and a white director,” Bengu says, laughing. “The country’s going to eat you alive.”
However, he says, he didn’t think the reaction would be as hostile as it has been.
“Because it’s a macho society this is ‘un-African’, this is the white settler who’s brought this ‘homosexual business’,” he explains, referring to the idea espoused by some that homosexuality is part of European culture, and unheard of in Africa.
Proponents of that view include Zimbabwe’s ex-president Robert Mugabe, who once called gays “worse than pigs and dogs”.
John Trengove, the film’s white South African director, who is gay, has said: “I know there is a lot that is not my place to talk about because I am not Xhosa. “I was stepping into a very complicated cultural space I knew that I needed to find collaborators. It’s high time a film from Africa put queer images on the screen.”
While many in other parts of Africa are fighting to ban female genital mutilation, teen male circumcision in South Africa is widely unquestioned as an important step towards adulthood, despite the fact that young men die every year.
The deaths occur because of botched circumcisions, accidental amputations, or infection and dehydration, with 27 dying last year, according to local media reports.
Experts have said that while skilled elders performed the cut - with a knife - in the past, they are now often done by quack doctors for money. However, safe circumcision - in a clinic with anaesthetic and medical supervision - has actually been encouraged by the government as an extra protection against HIV, infection rates of which are high in South Africa.
Gcobani Qambela, a doctoral student in anthropology at Rhodes University studying Xhosa masculinities, said that banning the traditional initiation would be misplaced, and advocates for a combined approach.
“I am aware that traditional authorities have been working with the government and biomedical practitioners to find solutions that are culturally sensitive, but yet respond to the need to prevent the needless death of young boys and men,” he said.
However, some have noted that for gay Xhosa men it can be a trying time, especially because “the ritual carries with it the implicit assumption that gay initiates have decided to "convert to heterosexuality”, according to a 2016 research paper from the University of Fort Hare.
They also face alienation from their peers if they don’t “conform to cultural expectations of masculinity”, the paper titled “Gay Xhosa men’s experiences of ulwaluko” reads.
The film was shot outside Johannesburg, but is set in the Eastern Cape, and many of the actors were ordinary people from a nearby Xhosa community.
The Wound was among nine movies long-listed for best foreign film at the Oscars, but just missed out on making the final nominations.
Nakhane admits making the film - his debut - was challenging.
“I was really scared of opening myself up like that to complete strangers,” the 29-year-old says in a video on the film’s official site.
“This conversation about masculinity and a homoerotic relationship in a space that’s quite hyper-masculine.”
Nakhane said despite the fear, he drew on his own experiences when portraying his character in the film and said he hoped watching it will help other young, gay men.
“I think people who do see it will maybe feel less alone.”
DPA/African News Agency/(ANA)