Placing the film “Inxeba – The Wound” in Historical Review

Inxeba Movie Poster

Story Synopsis

Inxeba is essentially an intersectional story about three Xhosa men that is told in the setting of the mountains of the Eastern Cape during a period of the male Xhosa initiation, which is referred to as ulwaluko. Two of the men (Xolani and Vija) are caregivers and tasked with assisting their initiates during this period. They have a secret sexual relationship that they only engage in during this period every year. Vija is married with children. Xolani lives alone. As the complexity of their relationship plays out, in conjunction with their roles as caregivers and Xhosa men, Xolani is challenged by the behaviour and taunts of his initiate, Kwanda, who is far more embracing of his sexual identity.

Kwanda’s actions and comments during his initiation pose a disruption to the institution and a particular challenge to Xolani and Vija when he discovers their relationship.

The Film’s Significance

At the 38th Durban International Film Festival in July 2017, the film won two awards for best director (John Trengrove) and best actor (Nakhane Touré). [1] The film premiered in Utah, in the USA at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017 and at the 67th Berlin Film Festival. [2] In Spain at the Valencia International Film Festival it won best film and best actor for the Cinema Jove section. [3] In Taiwan at the Taipei Film Festival it won best film award in the International New Talent Competition. [4] It won best feature film at the 32nd Lovers Film Festival. In Florida it won the Jury Prize for the best narrative at the 19th annual Sarasota Film Festival. [5]

However, the response based solely on the release of the trailer resulted in a strong backlash, particularly among certain people within the Xhosa community in South Africa, with threats of protest and strong criticism against the film crew. Nevertheless, the central themes played out in Inxeba brings to light subaltern stories and perspectives that push critical issues to the forefront for a national dialogue and reflection.

On the 16th of September 2017, Inxeba was released in selected theatres in South Africa, to meet its requirements as a candidate for best foreign film category at the Oscars. Submissions for this category are due in October and each country may only submit one film, with a requirement being that film dialogue must contain  more than 50% in a foreign language. [6] The Academy committee will then announce a list of 9 finalists, and from there a second committee will establish five final nominees. Academy voters which are comprised of thousands of members divided according to 17 different branches will then do the voting to select the winner. [7]

Central Themes

Through the lives of the three Xhosa male characters, the construct of Xhosa masculinity is largely interrogated. Does identifying as gay mean one is less of a man? Does being a man mean you cannot identify as gay? What does being a man entail? What are the detrimental attributes and contradictions of this subscribed manhood? What pressures do human beings face in upholding their manhood?

Homosexuality in the film is explored as both a repressed and oppressed experience in the setting of traditional Xhosa cultural tradition. It is hidden and anyone suspected of deviating from heterosexuality is immediately scorned and excluded, due to traditional beliefs purporting homosexuality as taboo and wrong. Although this is highly criticised and resisted in the film, through the character of Kwanda, the pain and fear of having same-sex desire is expressed through the struggles of the characters of Xolani and Vija.

The conflicting juxtaposition of modernity and tradition plays out through the process of initiation and the Xhosa culture that governs the lives of these men. Modernity is represented by the city and the effect it has on people who leave the rural areas, as well as those who remain in the rural areas. For example, Kwanda’s behaviour is constantly blamed on him being a ‘city-boy’. It plays out through the dialogue of the elders, as well as the class differentiation.

Film Preparation

Thando Mgqolozana’s novel, “A Man Who Is Not a Man” was used as a reference for the film’s script. Mgqolozana’s novel sheds light on the experience of failed circumcision and the impact it has on the process of the initiation for ‘becoming a man’. The story of the film was written by John Trengrove, Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu. Trengrove has been the object of strong criticism for being a white director at the helm of a culturally  specific story. The criticism points to the fact that as a white, non Xhosa man, he cannot identify with the films content. Trengrove claims that he maintained awareness of his positionality whilst making the film and sort collaboration to ensure the film’s authenticity. [8] Extensive research was undertaken by the film crew, including interviews over 6 months of Xhosa men, varying in sexual and class identity. Mthetho Tshemese, a clinical psychologist, was also brought on board the film to offer guidance on the depiction of the ulwaluko process. The film crew was also made up of non-actors who were given a degree of initiative and independence to drive the portrayal of ulwaluko in the film.

In 2014, as a run-up to Inxeba, John Trengrove, Batana Vundla and Elias Ribeiro produced IBhokwe: The Goat, which was a 13-minute long movie. The story illustrated the intersectionality of homosexuality and tradition through the narrative of a gay man, played by Nkosipendule Cengani, isolated from other initiates and abandoned by his elders as he undergoes ulwaluko. [9]

John Trengrove and Batana Vundla were interested in making a queer film in South Africa 5 years ago, during a period in which “the media was quite saturated with statements of people like Robert Mugabe saying that homosexuality was un-African—a Western decadence, that it was against traditional African culture.” [10] They wanted the film to go further than homosexual and queer identity, but explore masculinity and patriarchy and intersect it within a specific traditional context.

Unpacking the Backlash

The criticism, anger and disrespect expressed by members of the Xhosa community are centred on accusations of cultural appropriation and the violation of the sanctity of ulwaluko. In response, the film’s crew has maintained that they expected the backlash against the film, but feel that there is also a large degree of homophobia underpinning the responses.

Media has reported that King Mpendulo Sigcawu wanted to file an interdict against the screening of Inxeba and he had written to the Eastern Cape Arts and Culture MEC and the Film and Publication Board asking them not to screen the film. However, the King clarified that he was approached by community members who were unhappy about the film and maintains:

“We are saying after only seeing clips on YouTube, we would have liked to be educated about the film and what it aims to achieve. This is why we are asking the minister of arts and culture and his provincial counterpart, the Commission on Religious, Cultural and Linguistic Communities [CRL Commission] as well as Films and Publications Board [FPB] for assistance for a meeting.”

“Our view is that we are not really happy with what we have seen, hence we thought it will be ideal to sit and share our concern. We would perhaps have an opportunity to watch the movie in that forum”

In relation to this, Asandiswa Jali’s article that calls for banning the film concedes that the themes of the film are important and need to be discussed and addressed in Xhosa communities, but in doing so disrespect must not be promoted against the amaXhosa culture itself. [11] She calls for communities to hold conversations about the exclusion and discrimination of the LGBTIQ community in ulwaluko and maintains that releasing a movie which will only be seen by the privileged and not by the villages where these problems exist is not constructive at all:

“The Xhosa speaking people in the movie should be holding these conversations in villages where these problems are.” [12]

The historical contextual reality of the amaXhosa in South Africa is the theft of the land by European colonialists, disintegration of indigenous communities and the subjugation of the people under the western imperialism and capitalism that crafted bodies of labour to serve the enrichment of an imperialist economy that does not benefit their communities. More so, there is a history of disciplines treating and depicting amaXhosa culture as an exotic other and ahistorical – largely from a colonial and modernist lens, which is very limited in its scope of truth and comprehension. In this light, the frustration and concern emanating from the Xhosa community about their stories being told is comprehensive.

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However, despite the secrecy and sanctity that ulwaluko is shrouded i, there is significant research about the initiation that exists outside of the film. For example, in 2015 Richard Bullock wrote an article titled “A month with three initiates during the Xhosa circumcision ritual and included details and images. In 2009, Andile P. Mhlahlo wrote a Master’s thesis for Stellenbosch University, titled “What is manhood? The significance of traditional circumcision in the Xhosa initiation ritual”.

The principles underlying ulwaluko that involves preparing and transforming boys for a life of responsibility, maturity and spirituality in line with Xhosa ancestors, goes hand-in-hand, but is not necessarily integral, with the pressures and expectations of what it means to be a man. [13] The film is taking a look at ulwaluko from the perspective of men who find it difficult to navigate this space because of how they may deviate from these expectations. Essentially, John Trengrove’s premis for the film was “What happens when people have to oppress who they are?" [14] and the film is more about this emotional internal conflict within self at the helm of oppressed intersectional identities:

“There is no over-aesthetisation of the African landscape or African bodies. There is no overwhelming sense of the mythopoeic. What there is, is the simple – and not always elegant – poetry of human truth, complexity and desire.” [15]

This focus takes precedent in the film over communicating an understanding of what ulwaluko is actually about. To audiences not familiar with amaXhosa culture, the institution may appear ahistorical, rigid, detrimental in the kind of men they send out into society and oppressive to individuals. The value of the institution from the Xhosa perspective is neglected. The approach and lens of the story is from a modern positionality and this disjuncture is expressed through the character of Kwanda’s disruptive attitude and criticism of ulwaluko, but we do not get the perspective of what the elders and caregivers are actually truly teaching these initiates. Whether this was undertaken purposefully to portray the problematic nature of modernity with its heritage of colonial imperialism or a sacrifice in bringing the subaltern experiences of men in ulwaluko at the forefront, is unclear and will probably be up for subjective judgements.

It is also necessary to consider the statistics that the Human Science Research Council and the Other Foundation released in 2016, that revealed 72% of South Africans deem homosexuality as morally wrong [16] and the following statement by lead actor Nakhane Touré’s:

“You know how many queer people have killed themselves, because the world has told them that there is not space for them, that there is no space for them in this culture and that being gay is unAfrican” [17]

Against this backdrop the film is highly incisive and forces viewers to think about heavy realities and contradictions in Xhosa culture and society in general. There is no doubt that homophobia will be a part of the backlash against the film, but to aptly conclude by quoting Nakhane again, as a nation:

“We can fight. But I don’t want us to not talk. Our views might not be the same, but let’s be mature about it. All I’m trying to say is let’s have this conversation.” [18]

Endnotes

[1] “Global accolades for isiXhosa movie Inxeba”, Brand South Africa, 27 July 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, https://www.brandsouthafrica.com/people-culture/global-accolades-for-isi....

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Christopher McKittrick, “How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar↵”, ThoughtCo., 9 February 2016, Accessed 19 September 2017, https://www.thoughtco.com/qualifying-best-foreign-language-film-oscar-24....

[7] Christopher McKittrick, “Who Votes for the Oscars↵”, ThoughtCo., 9 August 2016 accessed 19 September 2017, https://www.thoughtco.com/who-votes-for-the-oscars-4021744

[8] Aramide A. Tinubu, “Interview: Director John Trengove talks South African coming-of-age drama, 'The Wound'”, Shadow and Act, 17 August 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, https://shadowandact.com/interview-director-john-trengove-talks-south-af...

[9] Sandiso Ngubane, “Short film explores Xhosa initiation, homosexuality”, Mail&Guardian, 14 February 2014, accessed 19 September 2017, https://mg.co.za/article/2014-02-13-lonely-boys-made-xhosa-men.

[10] Aramide A. Tinubu, “Interview: Director John Trengove talks South African coming-of-age drama, 'The Wound'”, Shadow and Act, 17 August 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, https://shadowandact.com/interview-director-john-trengove-talks-south-af...

[11] Asandiswa Jali, “Banning of The wound (Inxeba) movie”, Xhosa Culture, 16 August 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, http://xhosaculture.co.za/banning-wound-inxeba-movie/.

[12] Ibid

[13] Cindy Govender, “Rites of Passage: John Trengove’s The Wound”, The Brooklyn Rail, 14 July 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, http://brooklynrail.org/2017/07/film/Rites-of-Passage-John-Trengoves-The....

[14] Sandiso Ngubane, “Short film explores Xhosa initiation, homosexuality”, Mail&Guardian, 14 February 2014, accessed 19 September 2017, https://mg.co.za/article/2014-02-13-lonely-boys-made-xhosa-men.

[15] Peter Machen, “City Press Reviews: The Wound”, Channel 24, 19 February 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, http://www.channel24.co.za/Movies/News/city-press-reviews-the-wound-2017....

[16] Cindy Govender, “Rites of Passage: John Trengove’s The Wound”, The Brooklyn Rail, 14 July 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, http://brooklynrail.org/2017/07/film/Rites-of-Passage-John-Trengoves-The....

[17] Carl Collison, “Actor Nakhane Touré fends off hate speech over controversial new film”, Mail&Guardian, 01 March 2017, accessed 19 September 2017, https://mg.co.za/article/2017-02-28-actor-nakhane-toure-fends-off-hate-s....

[18] Ibid


References:
• Collison, Carl. “Actor Nakhane Touré fends off hate speech over controversial new film”. Mail&Guardian. 01 March 2017. Accessed 19 September 2017. https://mg.co.za/article/2017-02-28-actor-nakhane-toure-fends-off-hate-speech-over-controversial-new-film.
•  “Global accolades for isiXhosa movie Inxeba”. Brand South Africa. 27 July 2017. Accessed 19 September 2017. https://www.brandsouthafrica.com/people-culture/global-accolades-for-isixhosa-movie-inxeba.
•  Govender, Cindy. “Rites of Passage: John Trengove’s The Wound”. The Brooklyn Rail. 14 July 2017. Accessed 19 September 2017. http://brooklynrail.org/2017/07/film/Rites-of-Passage-John-Trengoves-The-Wound.
•  Jali, Asandiswa.“Banning of The wound (Inxeba) movie”. Xhosa Culture. 16 August 2017. Accessed 19 September 2017. http://xhosaculture.co.za/banning-wound-inxeba-movie/.
•  Machen, Peter. “City Press Reviews: The Wound”. Channel 24. 19 February 2017. Accessed 19 September 2017. http://www.channel24.co.za/Movies/News/city-press-reviews-the-wound-20170219.
•  McKittrick, Christopher. “Who Votes for the Oscars?”. ThoughtCo. 9 August 2016. Accessed 19 September 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-votes-for-the-oscars-4021744
•  McKittrick, Christopher. “How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar?”. ThoughtCo. 9 February 2016. Accessed 19 September 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/qualifying-best-foreign-language-film-oscar-24....
•  Ngubane, Sandiso. “Short film explores Xhosa initiation, homosexuality”. Mail& Guardian. 14 February 2014. Accessed 19 September 2017. https://mg.co.za/article/2014-02-13-lonely-boys-made-xhosa-men.
•  Tinubu, Aramide A. “Interview: Director John Trengove talks South African coming-of-age drama, 'The Wound'”. Shadow and Act. 17 August 2017. Accessed 19 September 2017. https://shadowandact.com/interview-director-john-trengove-talks-south-african-coming-of-age-drama-the-wound

Last updated : 22-Sep-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Sep-2017