Last week South Africans waited on tenterhooks to see if Inxeba (The Wound) would make the shortlist for the Best Foreign Film category at this year’s Oscars.
It didn’t. But that doesn’t take away from its clout as a powerful movie addressing a stigma within the Xhosa culture via the prism of ukwaluka, traditional circumcision and initiation into manhood.
For venturing into uncharted territory with the subject matter, John Trengove’s intrepid spirit is commended. Thankfully, he had the expertise of co-writers Malusi Bengu and Thando Mgqolozana to steer the narrative.
On the genesis of Inxeba (The Wound), Trengove explains: “The Wound was born out of a desire to push back against certain clichéd stereotypes of black masculinity perpetuated inside and outside African cinema.
“As a white man representing marginalised black realities that are not my own, the situation is of course complicated. Even highly problematic.
“It was important to me that the story mirrors this problem.
“The character of Kwanda (Niza Jay) is an outsider to the traditional world; he expresses many of my own ideas about human rights and individual freedom.
“He’s also the problem. His preconceptions create jeopardy and crisis for others who have much more to lose than him. This was my way of saying: ‘I don’t have the answers and my own values don’t necessarily apply here.’”
He continues: “In writing The Wound, inspiration came, unexpectedly, from Robert Mugabe.
“Statements that he and other African leaders have made since the early 1990s imply that homosexuality is a symptom of Western decadence that threatens ‘traditional’ culture.
“And so, we thought, okay, let’s use that idea. Let’s imagine ‘gayness’ as a kind of virus that penetrates and threatens a patriarchal organism, and let’s see how that organism responds to being penetrated,” he says.
With a Xhosa initiation camp used at the backdrop for the movie, the film was bound to stir up controversy. And Trengove foresaw this reaction.
He reveals: “Ukwaluka is a taboo ritual and representing it in the way we have is contentious.
“We knew from the start that we would spark strong reactions from traditionalists.
“But there was also a lot of encouragement from a younger Xhosa generation who seems eager to break the silence around the initiation which is seen to perpetuate some of the dangers associated with it.
“It’s a vast and very nuanced practice, and there remains a lot to be said about the ritual that is not my place to talk about. Things that need to be said from within the culture.
“Hopefully, The Wound could spark some of that,” Trengove adds. “Maybe a gay Xhosa kid will watch it one day and go: ‘Actually, that wasn’t my experience at all’ and be inspired to write his own story.”
There are several adroitly shot intimate scenes in the movie. It wouldn’t have been half as compelling without the right actors. To that end, Nakhane Touré as Xolani, a blue- collar worker just wanting to be with the man he loves, and Bongile Mantsai as Vijay, a married guy who wears his machismo on his sleeve. The two find themselves at loggerheads as only one of them prefers to keep their romance a secret.
On bagging Touré, Trengove says: “I met Nakhane about two years ago and I was instantly a fan. I secretly started writing the lead character for him after our first meeting. Even though he didn’t have any professional acting experience I had a feeling that he would be hypnotic on camera.
“Nakhane is a fearless and multifaceted artist in his own right. He does this instinctively without blocking or resisting and allows himself to be very vulnerable and honest in front of the camera.
“It’s very rare to work with an actor like that.”
By the way, critics have been singing the praise of the movie. It’s already scooped 19 awards at festivals across the globe.
Even more impressive, Trengove was recently signed on by the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in Los Angeles.
He admits: “This is an exceptional honour for me as CAA manages numerous prestigious clients and represents many of the most successful professionals working in film, TV and theatre. The company has a long history of industry leadership and innovation and I am tremendously excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for me as a film-maker.”
In case you are wondering, their other clients include: Ava DuVernay (Selma), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Steven Spielberg (most recently, The Post).
Back to the movie. Trengove says: “A film such as this cannot hope to provide solutions for the crisis faced by millions of people on the African continent and around the world.
“What it can do, however, is present the crisis for what it is - a deep and ever-widening chasm.”
* Inxeba (The Wound) is currently on circuit.