Exposing a culture’s wounds

Tale of transition: A scene from Inxeba. The film’s exploration of Xhosa initiates brings culture, language and different layers of identity to the fore, pushing a new narrative about what culture is and what it represents in our society

Tale of transition: A scene from Inxeba. The film’s exploration of Xhosa initiates brings culture, language and different layers of identity to the fore, pushing a new narrative about what culture is and what it represents in our society

More than being just an expository foray into a culture’s sacred rites and rituals, award-winning South African film Inxeba — The Wound is a love story that tenderly breaks new ground on more fronts than expected.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States in January before opening the Berlin Film Festival. After winning several awards at the Valencia and Sarasota film festivals, among others, Inxeba had its South African premiere at the Durban International Film Festival last week.

In the film, Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a factory worker, is a khankatha (a caregiver for initiates) for Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), umkhwetha (an initiate) who is suspected by his father of being too “soft”.

Kwanda and Xolani form a tenuous but close bond during the initiation period that is complicated by the presence of Vija (Bongile Mantsai), a seasoned khankatha of hyper-male presentation and a friend of the gentle-natured Xolani.

The opening scene of Inxeba is a medium landscape shot of Xolani facing the camera inside a packing and storage facility. Xolani and the camera drive an unseen loading truck, creating movements that look remotely controlled by a superior force.
Left to right, further and closer. We are about to get to know him, the framing suggests. Director John Trengove’s frame is relentlessly tight and in your face henceforth.

The colour scheme of the scene is that of a brown cardboard box, the same colour as the dusty gravel road that appears and envelops the next scene where, from the back of a bakkie, Xolani is about to transition from low-ranking factory worker to a respected khankatha.

It is initiation season in this unnamed Eastern Cape village and, for the first time on film, we are about to see an aspect of what might, could or has happened in a setting that we’ve all heard about but few outside Bantu cultures, especially women, have experienced. And I write this as a Xhosa woman.

From here, the colour scheme is minimal, intentional and a language on its own within the story: fecund greens, tree-bark browns, bonfire oranges and the occasional red and white of a mkhwetha’s blanket. We are in the belly of nature, where the thick bush and falling water are characters in their own right.

The most dominant colour on screen, though, is the beautiful dark brown of the bodies of the initiates, including Kwanda, who is mostly covered in ingceke, a white clay from stone that initiates wear as sunscreen during the month that they are in seclusion.

If Kwanda is the cinematic soloist, the other painted initiates are the choir, their deep murmurs and sporadic chimes forming a beautiful tension between their compliant masculinities and Kwanda’s defiant, nosering-clad homosexuality in the film.

While watching the film, I was worried about the white male’s cinematic gaze on black male bodies. I kept looking for shots that would discomfort me more than watching butch black men have bum-exposing sex on screen. Instead, I found still frame shots reminiscent of Chinese photographer Ren Hang’s work. Trengrove beautifully captured vulnerable bodies, bodies in love, bodies in tender lust, bodies carrying the pain of disconnection, the pain of unrequited and disallowed love.

For instance, the khankathas’ unpainted bodies, more than once in the film, engage in an intimacy that pushes the boundaries of touch between two black men further than audiences have seen on cinema screens to date.

In this regard, the nakedness of the bodies throughout the film does not appear as the result of the director’s lascivious gaze but is a precondition for telling this particular story, where masculinity is disrobed, aired out and reformed by the exposition of romantic love on this most sacrosanct altar of said masculinity.

The strongest element that saves the visuals from being seen in a simplistic “white gaze obsessing over black bodies” dualism is the sparse but perfectly delivered dialogue, which is in isiXhosa.

As Trengove explained to the audience after the screening of the film last week, this was a collaborative project in which he had to relinquish the traditional power a director would have in order to create authenticity.

“There was a lot of ad-libbing when we were shooting,” says Nakhane, who is also an author and a South African Music Award-winning musician.

Some of the dialogue stayed within writer Malusi Bhengu’s narrative script but veered off to the actors’ improvisations every now and then. According to the director, South African audiences laughed and spoke back to the screen, relating in a way that overseas audiences could not.

There are only two English lines, one delivered feebly by Xolani to the sole white character who appears briefly and the other habitually spat out by Kwanda’s city-boy proclivities. The line stands out against the rest of the dialogue, disobeying and complicating the setting while elevating Kwanda’s character from reluctant boy and protégé at the beginning of the film to a defiant Other of a nascent man later on.

The triumph of this humble little film, which took five years to raise its R9‑million budget, probably won’t be in its ability to slash box-office expectations.

When it screens its Oscar-qualifying run at Ster-Kinekor cinemas in the coming weeks, it will definitely discomfort the comfortable and frighten the gatekeepers of “culture”. This is because it’s a new cinematic endeavour in its fusion of film, culture, language and
identity.

By casting a light on some of the wounded elements of amasiko ethu (our rituals), it’s an unwelcome call for reimagining to take place, for the culture to evolve, to wound itself, expose itself just like the initiates it so proudly values, so that it too may grow.

Is it a pity that it had to be a white director who conducted the need for the conversation about Xhosa masculinity to happen?I don’t know.I see his outsider position as limited rather than overbearing, measured rather than dominant.

I was reduced to tears by the story and the actors’ profound occupation of their roles.The reality is that white filmmakers still have more access to the skills and networks needed for a film like this to make as much impact that it can in the business of film, not to diminish Trengove’s exceptional skill and the awareness in making this film. That said, he could not have made this a successful film without this story — which is a new story for Hollywood, a new story for the world and a new story on the screens we so vociferously consume everyday — because he is not Xhosa.

And if Xhosa people after watching Inxeba, still feel like our culture is being exploited, it will be important to consider that the actors and writers of the film belong inside this very culture that is being centralized in a story that without a doubt, contributes to the evolution of the universal experience of being human.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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