South Africa has a long history of confrontation, from our struggle against apartheid to the recent fight for free and decolonised education. We are fortunate to live in a time where we can document and archive these confrontations through various mediums, one of them being film.
One of the main reasons I chose to pursue a career in the film industry is precisely because it allows us to capture moments of triumph, failure and confrontation, to capture our collective and individual histories.
This is why I understood the need for a film like Inxeba — The Wound to be made. It is why I had no doubts about acting in the film, despite being certain of the criticism it would receive.
One of the most prominent objections is that the film “exploits” Xhosa culture and customs. Although I am inclined to humour such claims for argument’s sake, I do not understand how so many people, Xhosa and non-Xhosa, came to this conclusion from a two-minute trailer, which is the only cinematic content that was made available in the country until last Friday, July 14, at the film’s South African premiere at the Durban International Film Festival.
It has been the only screening in South Africa and the reaction from the people in the room was positive. But I have no way of predicting what the reaction will be at other local screenings. What I do hope becomes apparent, over and above the sensationalist discourse about a “gay movie set on the mountain”, as well as the surface-level arguments about a sacred ritual being compromised by the multiracial makers of the film, is the story at the heart of Inxeba.
At its core, the film documents the complicated relationship between three Xhosa men, whose understanding and embodiment of manhood differs greatly. The film is a confrontation of what it means to be a man, specifically a Xhosa man.
As a 22-year-old Xhosa man who has made the conscious decision not to go to the mountain, as is my human right, patriarchal and phallocentric logic dictates that I have no place in any conversation about Xhosa initiation or manhood. Fortunately, meeting rigid and narrow requirements for manhood, masculinity or anything else has never interested me.
That being said, I would gladly concede to being disqualified from the processes of reasoning that inculcate and reproduce flawed ideals of male entitlement. What I refuse to be disqualified from is the documentation and historicisation of Xhosa people, a group I am irrefutably a part of.
I also refuse to be disqualified from defining my identity as a Xhosa male, who understands himself as a man. By this, I mean that not being initiated into manhood in the supposedly Xhosa way does not and should not supersede any of the multiple experiences that have shaped and moulded me into a self-reliant, enduring, responsible and considerate adult.
I can already hear the rebuttal that being a Xhosa man is about more than representing and embodying these qualities. Perhaps it is. But I believe all the additional markers, physical or otherwise, of Xhosa manhood, whether they are culturally sanctioned or not, also do the violent work of endowing the Xhosa male body with an erroneously heightened sense of significance and symbolism that fundamentally propagates deeply patriarchal and heterosexist attitudes.
It would be unwise of me to ignore the inherent problem of questioning how culture organises the bodies that belong to it. But it would be even more unwise to ignore how this culture often renders some of the bodies placeless.
As a “feminine” presenting man who engages physically and emotionally with other men on a romantic level, my body actively defies what my culture dictates it should do
and signify. But I am not the only body that defies narrow definitions of culture.
Apart from defying physical expectations, there is nothing about our culture that we necessarily fail to uphold. In the same breath, so-called “real men” do not necessarily satisfy what culture expects from them either. But by virtue of being physically and socially compliant, their place in the culture is unquestioned.
Although Xhosa culture rightfully creates a space for abiding male bodies to flourish, endowing them with the tools to occupy their designated place as men in the culture, defiant bodies such as mine are expected to forego self-definition to satisfy cultural expectations of manhood.
This double standard necessitates an inquiry into what exactly our culture prioritises and for what reason.
Inxeba is not only a deepening of this inquiry, it also represents another moment of vital confrontation for South Africa. The film confronts the prevailing depictions of the black body, the erasure of dissenting voices and, most importantly, the limitations of our film industry’s narrative exploits.
The film’s documentation of defiant male bodies makes a valuable contribution to the collective history of Xhosa men, whether they bear the wound or not.
Niza Jay’s character is Kwanda, an initiate from Johannesburg who defies the performance of Xhosa manhood on the sacred initiation mountain where the film is set.