The Wound Review
Slowly but surely two elements of cinema have been gaining traction in more mainstream film circles. African cinema, thanks to a more globally minded media consumer, has gradually been making its way out from under the shadow of South Africa and the slightly less flattering reputation gained by Nollywood. Similarly, LGBTQ+ issues have been slowly gaining mass critical and commercial attention with Moonlight, God's Own Country, Call Me By Your Name, Tangerine and Carol all being beautiful explorations of different aspects of the LGBTQ+ experience. The Wound - the debut film by South African director John Trengove - explores a specifically African experience of homosexuality, masculinity and tradition.
A little cultural knowledge doesn't hurt when appreciating The Wound and the powerful message that is contained within it. The Wound - or in the original Xhosa (a language known for its distinctive clicked consonants spoken on the south-east coast of South Africa) - Inxeba, focusses on the ritual of Ulwaluko. This is an initiation into manhood by Xhosa people that involves circumcision and isolation on a mountain for up to a month. There are two stages, the first consists of a period of healing where initiates or abakwetha are confined to a small straw hut and kept to a limited diet. The second phase is more of a male bonding experience as the initiates camp with their caregivers or ikhankatha, who are tasked with looking after them and help usher the initiates into manhood. There can be, of course, medical problems that arise during the ritual, but despite this the ceremony still persists as an integral part of tradition. However, what is relevant to this film, and its exploration of homosexual themes, is that the Ulwaluko is seen as necessary to become a man.
The plot of the film concerns three main characters Xolani, Via and Kwanda. Xolani, played by the openly gay musician, artist and author Nakhane Toure, is a closeted warehouse worker who takes on the responsibility of caregiver mainly to see his childhood friend and secret lover Vija, who is more outgoing and married with children. However, when Xolani is given charge of the child of a wealthy Xhosan, Kwanda, who is also gay, Kwanda realises Xolani's situation and tries to convince Xolani that his life is better off without the tradition and Vjia.
Within these characters are three very different representations of masculinity and sexuality and these are all performed spectacularly. Bongile Mantasi as Vija is more overt in his performance, more flashy. He is unstable, struggling with his sexuality and his secret life and love affair with Xolani. This manifests in violent outbursts, brutal shows of force that allow him to prove a twisted embittered version of masculinity that was forced upon him by society and the ritual he went through as well. Yet, he is somehow overshadowed by Toure, whose quiet uncertainty and conflict speak louder than Vija's brash insecurity. The battle that rages in the mind of the withdrawn Xolani is genuinely heartbreaking as we see him make bad decisions based on his loyalties and need to keep himself a secret. Niza Jay Ncoyini as Kwanda, on the other hand, instills a quiet confidence that contrasts even more so with the other two characters and presents them with the thing they wish they had.
This is symbolised perfectly with the construct of enforced masculinity within the ritual circle. Right from the moment the surgeon removes the foreskin, the initiates yell, "I am a man", but as of yet, they have no idea what that means. It is just the male performance of the group that they are accepting, the type of masculinity that Vija is so scared of losing, the kind that boasts about romantic conquests, physicality and brutality but not emotion.
There is always an unease talking about cultural elements of a film, especially if the director John Tregove - though himself a native South African - is still an outsider to the cultural practices involved as he is white. However, Tregrove's camera is respectful and truthful. It is not afraid to explore the sublime and the suffering that these characters go through, from the first two times that Xolani and Vija have sex, which is brutal and ugly, stolen moments that are quick and violent rather than the final time the two meet next to the waterfall. The African setting allows for moments of peace and contemplation, as the sun sets over the planes and mountain there is a stillness despite the characters’ internal pain and frustration raging on.
While The Wound is excellently plotted and there's a deep emotional well that Tregrove and his actors draw from, it unfortunately outstays its welcome and fails to stick what should have been a devastating landing. The last decisions of our main character are indeed shocking, but it lacks the emotional punch that, one presumes, the filmmakers were really aiming for.
There are elements of great emotional beauty in The Wound. The performances, though subtle convey a great deal of pain suffering and conflict that genuinely impacts itself on the audience. And yet there is something that keeps it from greatness, and that is the odd choice at the end. In spite of this, however, it still an important film for its exploration of African homosexuality, masculinity and tradition. John Trengove is a new cinematic voice that should be heard, and I hope that it convinces other South Africans to raise theirs as well.