Exposing a culture’s wounds

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

From ‘academic boys’ to ‘sex-jaros’: What it means to be a black boy in a South African township

Toxic masculinities help drive everything from HIV infection rates to gender-based violence. But before we ask, what does it mean to be a ‘man’ in South Africa, should we wonder what it’s like to be a boy?

Slice of life: I’m a  ‘neguinho’  who is really good

'I don’t blame them, really, because doing ballet — especially for men — is not really part of our culture'

Watch where you put your hands, oaf !

Men need to overhaul learnt views of their power over and rights to women

Initiation Bill trips over Contralesa

Amakhosi say they have not been consulted and have been insulted because women are involved

Cogta pleads with parents to check legitimacy of initiation centres

Any parent whose child is harmed, or who has suspicions about the place the child is going, must open a complaint at a police station

Why is male rage sacrosanct?

Hurt people hurt people, but one trauma should never justify another. Men are supposed to be understood;the rest of us must simply understand
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

SA justice delays extradition of paedophile to UK

Efforts to bring Lee Nigel Tucker to justice have spanned 16 years and his alleged victims have waited for 30 years

Former state security minister Bongo back in court

Bongo and his co-accused will appear in the Nelspruit magistrate’s court in Mpumalanga over charges of fraud, corruption and theft
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday