There is a common misconception that literature or film that offends does so because it pushes the right buttons. Take The Spear for instance. It was a lazy and crass piece of art that took on President Jacob Zuma by perpetuating racist imagery of the black male form. Then there are artistic works that are lauded and hated with equal measure.
Consider the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a European shore ahead of a McDonald's sign in the distance. This image was not necessarily insensitive to Syrian refugees. Rather it was a critique on Western civilization itself. Hebdo was commenting on refugees escaping war-torn Syria for Europe, where it turns out the price for a brown or black child is cheaper than a Big Mac.
Take the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims here, there and everywhere take serial offence to. In the orthodox Islamic tradition, depictions of the Prophet are out of bounds. But people shouldn’t die for doing so. And yet, it is not difficult to understand how a drawing of the Prophet can be utilised as a helpful distraction from the daily travails of real life.
It is with this sensitivity to outrage that I went to watch Inxeba (The Wound), a gay love story in a Xhosa initiation school up in the forests and mountains of rural Eastern Cape.
Inxeba, co-written by novelist Thando Mgqolozana, has won 19 international awards, was long listed for the Oscars and has been nominated for a bunch of Safta awards. This obviously means little to those on social media and elsewhere who claim the film is an affront to Xhosa culture for revealing the secret ritual of circumcision. There are others who actually saw the film who argue that a gay storyline has no business being told within the backdrop of the sacred initiation process.
And herein lies the issue. I understand that as much as we have a right to freedom of speech, we have a right to be offended. The question for me is simple: is the offence a source of protecting power and oppression or dismantling it?
And for me the film is clear in its ambition: a story of love that just happens to be between three men. In an environment in which their masculinity is meant to foreground expectation, the layers of love peel away at the social constructions of what a man is meant to be. For anyone who has run away from their own selves, the initiation school becomes a hideout.
And in this way, the story is South African in every way. The subtleties are sensitively surmounted. As more and more families move to the cities, there is the inevitable clash between tradition, materialism and between rival ideas; a deepening resentment towards city-slickers. As the rural-scapes shrink and country ideas become frail or dry, the attempt to hold on to established ideas takes root.
Already questions are being asked about queer and gay people and what it means to be an African man. Naturally, there will be concerns about the initiation rituals in the mountains, which quite frankly, beg for more regulation and consistency. Last year, 25 young men died at initiation schools in the Eastern Cape.
Where young people’s lives are at risk, where mothers are terrified they may never see their son walk back down the mountain, the need to challenge the norm becomes paramount.
Then, there are deeper, more profound questions that Inxeba asks of us.
How are we developing our young men and women for the horrific concrete jungles in which they are meant to survive? What are we doing to ensure they do not become fearful of themselves, their wants and needs? When will we halt the production of unthinking Cyclops, the peri-urban zombies terrified to chart their own path in life?
The unbelievable cinematography, visceral performances and tight editing is unlikely to bring the haters to earth. Neither will the multiple international awards soften the rage of those set aback by the dangers it is seen to pose. Those suspicious will find proof of its mutiny with each and every foreign success.
Yesterday, colonial masters had us hating ourselves: black and brown and queer bodies; anyone who didn’t conform to their standard. Today, identity politics returns an industry, bearing false prophecies of “choice” to be whoever we want and the “freedom” to be wherever we wish. The introduction of an obsessed regard for self has turned us into walking billboards instead of revolutionaries looking to change the guard.
Nevertheless, if we are to decolonise with purpose, we have resolve to unlock ourselves from the binaries created for us.
Inxeba is, after all, a story about love, especially self-love and healing. There won’t be a better South African film for some time.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.