The annual ritual that represents the transition from childhood to adulthood within the Xhosa community in South Africa was a carefully kept secret until Nelson Mandela mentioned it in his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. Since them it has been a fiercely debated topic of controversy and is the focus of John Trengove’s film The Wound.
The film follows Xolani (Nakhane Toure), a lonely warehouse worker, who took part in the ritual as a teenager and now in his 30s returns to help with the initiations. He has little interest in mentoring the young men and is instead more focussed on re-establishing a sexual relationship with fellow tribesman Vija (Bongile Mantsai). Vija leads a double life, with a wife and children back home.
Xolani’s mentee Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), who has grown up in Johannesburg, has even less interest being there than him. His father suspects that he might be gay, something that he blames on the influence of his mother, and has brought him to the mountain to set him right. Kwanda guesses that Xolani is gay and this creates an uneasy tension between them.
The title refers to cuts to the young men’s genitals that occur as part of the initiation. They are literal manifestations of the pains of masculinity that will forever leave a scar upon. Kwanda is more aware of this than most and is happy to accept the ridicule and ostracisation that come with its rejection. Xolani by comparison is confined by attempts to hide his sexuality and fears that it might be exposed. The camp acts as a prison, keeping Kwanda away from the city and holding Xolani within the tribe’s narrow view of what it means to be a man.
In a more conventional film we would see Xolani and Kwanda help each other come to terms with their sexuality, but Trengove takes a harsher route, representative of the ill feeling still held towards homosexuality in South Africa.
At the same time we see a conflict over the role and shape of the rituals. There is an obvious divide between the young men, dressed in traditional attire, and the tribesmen presiding over the ceremony in Adidas tracksuits. Many of the rituals feel improvised, like the impromptu trip to the waterfall and the arguments that accompany it.
Much like in last year’s I Am Not A Witch, tribal customs and ceremonies are traded for profit. Xolani is paid handsomely to take care of Kwanda, even though he has no need for the money. Trengove presents a tribe whose traditions are in limbo, unsure of its place within the modern world. Ultimately, there is an internal struggle within a community that warns of the foreign ways of the city, but still measures masculinity in terms of material success.
The Wound is an intimate and striking look at masculinity, sexuality, and indigenous cultures that is able to bring new life to familiar topics.
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